Focus on Games Creates New Possibilities for Computing in Artistic Disciplines

Take artistic creativity, add computer algorithms, and you get the Computer Science in the Arts (CITA) major. Joe Jackley, currently a senior student at the College of Charleston and CITA, is passionate about both artistic expression and computing. She describes Computer Science in the Arts as “a splashing computer science degree in some artistic interests…it just emphasizes how to combine an artistic element.”

Sarah Schoemann, assistant professor of computer science and Jo Jackley, computer science in the arts major, at the Critical Art and Technology Lab. (Photos by Catie Cleveland)

And the CITA major’s concentration in game development and interaction allowed him to create a space to merge his interests into a single experience. This summer, Jackley worked over 10 weeks alongside Sarah Schoemann, assistant professor of computer science, on a research project called MYdata. Jackley describes MYdata as a data collection app that combines a phone app with a wearable wrist device. Using resources provided by Schoemann’s Critical Art and Technology (CAT) lab, Jackley gained experience in coding and developing software to create the app. She also learned hardware skills to build the wearable device, which she made using an Arduino microcontroller with low-power Bluetooth connectivity.

Inspired by an art project led by data scientists Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec called Dear Data, which used hand-drawn postcards to visualize the two women’s personal data such as how often they laughed in a day, MYdata offers users a chance to digitally capture and display their own personal collection of data throughout their day, such as the number of times they crave a cigarette or are talked about at work.

The MYdata app comes with a wearable wristband that allows the user to decide which data to record. The user can assign the meaning of their data and then record a timestamp of when it happens using a button on the wristband. From there, users can make visualizations to further represent the collected data, whether for personal reflection or artistic expression.

“It kind of democratizes the idea of ​​data collection,” says Schoemann, noting that data belongs to everyone, not just scientists and doctors. “I want there to be lots of options for people to show their data the way they want.”

a computer device

Jackley works on building components for a device in the CAT Lab.

And Jackley was able to put her lessons to tangible use with the MYdata project. It turned out to be both uplifting and empowering for her.

“In my experience, there are two scary things about coding,” says Jackley. “The first is when you’re new, trying to figure out the syntax and all of a sudden you’re stuck. It takes a little tweaking to figure out how it works. The second is when you start using a bunch of code that you haven’t written and are getting into projects longer than 1,000 lines it becomes less intuitive… But once you get over those things, it’s really fun and really enjoyable.

Schoemann’s research focuses on video games, but his interests also oscillate between wearable technology and tangible interfaces. And she wants her work to help solve social problems and change social agendas. For example, she is working alongside CofC’s Women’s Health Research team to develop a dating simulation game to teach menstruating people about their contraceptive options.

As a woman in a male-dominated field, Schoemann wants to make play development and interaction focus a welcoming environment for all genders.

“I think it’s important to have women in leadership positions, showing that this is a welcoming space and that women can be innovators,” she says.

As part of the concentration, Schoemann teaches courses such as game programming and animation and virtual worlds. Upon completion, students walk away with resume-building projects involving 3D modeling and the creation of digital worlds and characters. In the game programming course, students make a series of small game prototypes, such as a simple ball rolling game. In the second half of the semester, they work as a team to create a game of their own design.

sarah schoemann and jo jackley in the art and technology critical laboratory

The CAT Lab is a creative space where students interested in various disciplines can come and create something new.

“When you create a game design yourself, you kind of have to really work from scratch to figure out what your needs are for your game and how you can create something new and different,” says Schoemann. “It’s very difficult from a programming point of view, but they manage to come up with interesting and original ideas.”

Bill Manaris, director of the CITA program, says the CITA major reflects the reality that artists in the 21st century use computing devices as a medium to create their work. Computing in the arts allows students with an artistic bent to pursue their dreams, such as developing video games, while giving them the foundation they need to be competitive in a more traditional computing career.

Manaris advises anyone interested in joining the CITA major, especially the gaming focus: “Be open-minded, because you’ve been playing games all your life, so you’re drawn to that and you only want to create games, but be prepared to experience new things. Some of these classes are going to put you in spaces you’ve never been in before, and maybe you’ll find your home there.

Jackley plans to pursue software development when she graduates in May 2023. Her experience building the MYdata app and device along with her hobby of developing tabletop role-playing games sparked her interest in game mechanics and designing the overall feel of the game. Seeing how visual art, code and game design come together has become his “home”.

“Working with Dr. Schoemann has really reaffirmed my career goals,” she says.

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