By Gwendolyn Schanker
Each year, the MassDiGI Game Challenge provides a platform for aspiring game designers to launch new projects. Some projects are serious – like CCIS PhD student Chaima Jemmali’s game “May’s Journey,” which is designed to teach young girls how to code. Others are meant to provide entertainment – like seniors Arjun Rao, Chris Kuffert, and Conor Golden’s stone age-based game “B. C. E.”
All four of these CCIS students made it to the final round of the Game Challenge, where they pitched to a roomful of judges about their projects. Both Northeastern teams made a strong presentation: Rao, Kuffert, and Golden were runner-ups in the “College Beta” category. But it was Jemmali who stole the show. She took home an award for “Best Serious Game” as well as the Grand Prize.
“It’s great to work hard on something and have it finally pay off,” said Jemmali, a first-year PhD student studying computer science with a focus on artificial intelligence and games, of her experience at MassDiGI. “It motivates me to keep working and have the game more available for people to play.”
May’s Journey is a puzzle solving game designed for middle and high school aged girls who are beginner programmers. The hero, May, is trapped in a broken game world, and players have to type in code to help her escape.
“One of the reasons I wanted to design a game like this is because games are mostly designed by men to appeal to men,” said Jemmali, who earned her bachelor’s degree at the National Institute of Applied Science and Technology in Tunisia. She started working on May’s Journey when she was getting her master’s degree at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “I wanted to design something I would have liked to play at that age.”
Jemmali is currently working with her advisor, Magy Seif El-Nasr, on her PhD research and in the Playable Innovative Technologies Lab. She hopes to fully produce May’s Journey by the end of this year, and hopes that the game will help inspire young girls to pursue careers in computer science.
“I didn’t originally go into computer science because I thought it was too hard for me,” she said. “There’s a stereotype that it’s not a girls’ thing.”
Jemmali’s certainly defied that stereotype, partly evidenced by her Grand Prize win at MassDiGI. Rao, Kuffert, and Golden – fifth-year seniors with combined majors in computer science and game design – were impressed with both Jemmali’s game and her pitching ability.
“She killed it,” Rao said.
The three seniors first became involved with MassDiGI when the managing director, Monty Sharma, was a substitute professor in one of their classes. Rao, Kuffert, and Golden have been building games together since their freshman year, when an early friendship led to long-term collaboration.
“We came up with the idea for B.C.E. in one of our classes,” Golden said. “We kept iterating on that same idea over the course of a few semesters.”
In 2016, they used the funds from an Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavor Award to undergo an independent co-op and form both their game company – BlueDrop Games – and B.C.E., which is now in the final stages of being made. They hope to launch and start selling the game this summer.
“Launching a product is what you need to get into the industry,” Kuffert said. “Our co-op advisors really wanted us to be able to build this game.” Those advisors included CCIS Associate Co-op Coordinator Melissa Peikin and Game Design Professor Susan Gold.
Kuffert, like Jemmali, is glad to have had the opportunity to define gaming stereotypes during his Northeastern career.
“Gamers have this stereotype of staying inside,” he said. “It’s good to take chances and get out of your comfort zone as much as possible.”
In addition to her accolades at MassDiGI, Jemmali recently showcased May’s Journey at PAX East, an enormous video game convention that takes place in Boston each year.
“I was worried no one would want to play a serious game,” Jemmali said of her experience at PAX. “People were playing the whole time. It was really nice to see that happening.”
Unfortunately, Rao, Kuffert, and Golden weren’t able to get exhibit space to show their game at PAX, but made up for it by creating a makeshift “costume” that was designed to look like an arcade cabinet.
“I would hobble over to people waiting in line and have them play the game,” said Rao. He added that this unconventional – although frowned upon – method of spreading awareness was effective. “I would estimate that at least 10,000 people saw us.”
The team’s recent success at both PAX and MassDiGI was just the boost they needed to finish their game after graduating this spring.
“We thought we had a fun game – now we know,” Rao said. “This gives us renewed vigor to see it through.”