Mason Student Game Developers Work on App to Prevent Underage Drinking

By Buzz McClain

Chris Totten

Chris Totten

It was a cross between American Idol and Shark Tank, with GAME 232 Online and Mobile Gaming students doing their upbeat best to pitch the highlights of their new apps in front of a gimlet-eyed panel of judges representing the grant underwriter.

Screenshots of the games, in development since September, flashed on a board behind them as members of each of the eight teams of five took turns one afternoon in December describing the game action and thematic narratives of their semester’s work in 30 minutes.

No trip to Hollywood or big venture capital check was at stake. But for the undergraduate developers, catching the judges’ attention and earning their approval meant added time and resources to their projects.

In September, the students of Mason mobile game design professor Chris Totten learned not only would they be divided into teams to develop apps for smartphones and tablets, but the best of those apps would be chosen for continued development in the spring semester, providing time to refine the programs and give them better chances of actually being launched into the real world for a worthwhile purpose.

The grant underwriter is the Century Council, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit devoted to combating underage drinking. The council is funded by seven of the country’s largest distilleries. The mission of the app is to “delay the first drink for kids,” says Erik Strickland, senior director for government relations for the Century Council. “Delaying that first drink means we then are able to have a positive impact in life. We need them to say yes to a healthy lifestyle and no to underage drinking.”

Mason professor Chris Totten meets with one of the student teams in his Mobile Gaming class to review their app prior to the presentations. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Mason professor Chris Totten meets with one of the student teams in his Online and Mobile Gaming class to review their app prior to the presentations. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Developing an app is one thing; however, developing an app to create a social change could be daunting. But the students were inspired, not just by grades, but by a truly professional opportunity.

“Knowing it was for the council, it absolutely made an impression on me,” says sophomore Christian Tamburilla, whose team created an app called Pressure Network. “I’m someone who is trying to get somewhere before I get out of school. Even if we just get portfolios out of it, you never know what they’re going to turn into.

“If Pressure Network somehow became viral, you would have great bragging rights, and it can definitely help get a job if it’s substantial enough.”

Tamburilla says his team “dedicated just about all our free time to these games,” but, he adds, it was worth it. “It’s the pressure of knowing it’s real, knowing it’s serious, knowing you’re not only trying to impress someone, but also meet what they’re hoping for and make them happy. You don’t want to let anyone down. It’s definitely good pressure.”

Team members worked on dozens of different aspects of Pressure Network through the fall and into the winter, from the script to the artwork to the gameplay. The result is a strategic mobile game rendered in comic-like art that challenges Harvey, a teen high school student, to resist negative peer pressure and live a healthy lifestyle by making positive choices.

One semester, Tamburilla says, was far from enough to get the job done, which is why impressing the Century Council panel was important. There were butterflies in stomachs during the presentation that included not only a half-dozen visitors from the Century Council, but also Totten and College of Visual and Performing Arts assistant dean Scott Martin.

“What’s better than an extended project?” he asks. “A lot of [companies] that scout for game designers want to see completed work.”

Developing an app for a client was an unexpected bonus of attending Mason as an international exchange student, says Rob Homewood, who, along with app teammate Tom Seed, is from the University of Abertay Dundee in Dundee, Scotland.

“We were thrilled to be offered the project,” Homewood, a third-year student, says.

A screen capture for the game.

A screen capture for the Sweep Surfers game.

“We didn’t know we’d have an opportunity to work on a project like this,” says Seed, also a junior. “Hearing we might make something that might actually get somewhere in the real world is something I didn’t expect to experience in my time in college.”

The presentation of their app, Sweep Surfers (renamed after the presentation to Grab the Goodies), was one of the last of the long afternoon-into-evening members of the Century Council heard. Their app attempts to facilitate discussions between children and parents—a stated Century Council goal—with in-game trivia questions about healthy living and rewards for correct answers.

In the end, the Century Council chose not one but four of the proposed apps for further development: Dizzy Dash, Banquet Defense, Pressure Network, and Sweep Surfers (aka Grab the Goodies).

“We’re very happy it’s been chosen to move on,” says Homewood. “All of us are extremely excited about getting it done, getting it out there; what it’s going to mean for us is that we are now ‘professionals’ on our CVs. We’re now professional game developers. We’ve been hired by a client.”

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