Beyond the Graphics: Jordan Tynes Challenges Students to Create Meaningful Experiences Through Gaming

jordan tynes

Well before designers begin coding a new video game, they need to ask themselves a few key questions: How is this game portraying the player and allowing the player to behave in the world they are creating? Who is being represented? What characters can a gamer take on, and what is it like to play that character?

Jordan Tynes, Hess Fellow and visiting lecturer in computer science at Wellesley, doesn’t think many game studios are asking those questions carefully enough. He believes some issues with representation and toxicity in the gaming industry stem from the premises of the games themselves—such as those that ask players to become someone else, allowing for concealed identities, or that take place in worlds where people behave like monsters and use negativity for power.

As a result of Gamergate coming to light in 2014, where several women in the gaming industry were targeted as part of a harassment campaign, Tynes said we may see changes in the game design industry. But to ensure meaningful improvements, “we need to help cultivate better game designers,” he said.

That’s why at Wellesley, Tynes is setting the fledgling game design curriculum apart from those at other schools by focusing on creating meaningful experiences through gaming, rather than on coding or creating graphically impressive worlds.

“When I challenge my students to think about games differently, they are excited to do that. The veil is lifted and they are allowed to criticize this [industry] that is pretty impenetrable. I have found that students at other places are more reluctant to do that,” Tynes said.

The field is fairly new in higher education, with programs popping up all over the world; Tynes wants to refine the distinction between development and design, and help build the foundation for more curriculum and more exploration on this subject.

“I want students to feel like they can contribute to the creation of games that are more reflective of the different kinds of people who are playing them,” he said. “Right now, it’s a pretty bland landscape, and yet games are a very rich medium. There is a lot that we can work to change in the next decade.”

As the co-director of the Media Arts and Sciences program with Claudia Joskowicz, assistant professor of art, he has developed a track of computer science courses that open up game design to a broad group of students.

The sequence of classes allows all students—even those with no coding or computer science experience—to learn about game design and concepts. Courses such as Introduction to Game Design and Mixed and Augmented Reality allow for new connections among disciplines in the computer science and art departments.

“An important piece of Wellesley’s unique approach to teaching game design is the liberal arts,” Tynes said. “There is so much more than the technical expertise and technical concepts behind design. We need to take the technology processes and make them more about the concepts, language, emotion, and psychology of the game.”

Tynes is an avid board game player and collector, and prior to taking on his faculty role at the College, he brought his love of games and enthusiasm for the experiences they can create to his work with Library and Technology Services. “I have always been interested in, first and foremost, helping other people learn about things that I am excited about,” Tynes said.

With LTS, he helped launch experiences such as a semester-long, role-playing game across campus (also supported by the Paulson Ecology of Place Initiative). He created board games with one of anthropology lecturer Justin Armstrong’s classes, and he digitized classical studies professor Bryan Burns’ archeological exploration of ancient Eleon.

Tynes virtual reality (VR) research explores the idea of a user’s agency in interactive media; in VR, the amount of agency is unprecedented and the technology and design are getting close to giving users the same amount of agency they might have in real life.

“One of the most important distinctions is that in VR we don’t have to follow the rules of reality. Games also have that same privilege. They can break the rules of reality,” he said. “When we turn processes into a playful activity, we use the term ‘gamification,’ and we are now starting to see the idea of gamifying professional, personal, and academic experiences. When we have diverse game developers, gamifying their own personal experience and translating that through a human-centered gamer design process—into a VR experience—that has potential to be remarkable, to do a lot of unique things that media has not done before.”

For Tynes, video games, VR experiences, and classic board games alike are all about community and fun. “The number one goal is everybody has a great time, and that games bring people together from all walks of life, and they are all contributing meaningfully to the experience of everybody else,” he said.