Studio arts senior uses art and technology to create video games

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Christina Curlee

Game developer, level designer, 3D-modeler: senior Christina Curlee is not your average studio art major. 

Curlee builds art games — games that are focused on showing concepts or aesthetic ideas — more than entertainment.

“Art games are very interesting in that they’re sort of the intersection between mass entertainment and what one would call traditional art,” said Paul Toprac, the associate director for game design and development in the department of computer science and one of Curlee’s professors. 

Curlee started her art career as an installation artist, setting up immersive scenes and environments, such as a giant “expressionist birdhouse.” Eventually, her art became more virtual.

“I like fine arts, but I feel like sometimes it can be very self-serving, and I was getting a dissonance from that,” she said. “I like to make things that involve other people.”

Traditional art is not as interactive as art games, according to Toprac.

“Interactive is a loaded word,” he said. “Some people in the art world might call paintings interactive in the sense that you’re interacting mentally with the object by looking at it and viewing it and trying to understand it.”

Because of their interactivity, art games will probably become more popular than traditional art in the future, he said.

“An art game is an embodied interaction,” Toprac said. ”Your body is actually interacting, as well as the rest of your mind as well, so the two are interacting with the game art.”

Curlee started to mix art and technology into game development because of a lifelong interest in video games and computers. According to Bogdan Perzynski, another of Curlee’s professors, video games are a major entertainment industry where art and technology meet.

Curlee said she likes to make games that are transformative and serve a purpose.

“Games have a power of a sorts,” she said. “They can teach you things, they can change your mind about things, they can make you question things. They can make you question yourself, they can put you in other people’s’ shoes.”

Specifically, Curlee is interested in studying the way that engaging games can help players with depression.

“As a person that has dealt with depression, I know that games like Journey, or even massive multiplayers where I just get to talk to other people, does a lot more than me playing some app that says that it’s going to cure me,” she said. “Sometimes there’s a disconnect from what’s fun, what is really engaging and what is just flat medicinal.”

Curlee’s interest in more interactive forms of art has contributed to research interest in using games to fight depression. 

Unlike traditional art, scientific research in this area is more focused on helping others, she said.

“I don’t want to keep making work just for me or that just I and a handful of other artists understand,” she said. 

Curlee said better collaboration between scientists and artists can improve these games, and one of her career goals is to promote this collaboration.

“Letting these things cross-pollinate can make games that are both fun, entertaining, but also can change you or help you or get you through stuff,” she said.