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From Star Trek to the College Campus, Former Hollywood Screenwriter Takes on Top Ranked Video Game Program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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November 16, 2010

From Star Trek to the College Campus, Former Hollywood Screenwriter Takes on Top Ranked Video Game Program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Lee Sheldon, the new co-director of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Games & Simulation Arts and Sciences (GSAS) program, knows a good story when he hears one. The former Hollywood screenwriter and producer’s credits span three decades and include Star Trek: Next Generation, Charlie’s Angels, and Cagney & Lacey. But when it comes to the video game industry — in which he has worked since 1995 - Sheldon has yet to see good narrative emerge as a priority.

“Story-telling in video games has not kept up with how beautiful the art is, or how good the programming is,” Sheldon said. “They get the best artists on the planet, the best programmers, and then they ask Jimmy — who took one creative writing class in middle school — to write the story.”

From Sheldon’s perspective, video gaming will only reach its full potential as a medium when game designers elevate story to the same level as graphics and action. As co-director of GSAS, with Ben Chang, who also joined Rensselaer in the fall of 2010, Sheldon wants to unleash that potential, and develop aspects of the industry like “serious” games — games as teaching tools, in scientific research, therapy, defense, and other problem-solving applications.

“I want to raise generations of students who will make games that illuminate who we are and tell stories that are every bit as rich as literature,” said Sheldon. “I tell my students — why are you making this game? Is it for great explosions? To make tons of money? What is it about this game that will touch humanity? That will endure?”

Rensselaer’s Games & Simulation Arts and Sciences program is recognized as one of the top programs in the U.S. and Canada. Earlier this year, the Princeton Review named Rensselaer number 5 in its ranking of “Top 50 Undergraduate Game Design Programs,” in partnership with GamePro, a well-known publication in the video game industry.

Sheldon previously taught game design at Indiana University, Bloomington, where his unorthodox style of patterning his classes as a multiplayer game has earned praise for its success in exciting students and improving classroom learning. Sheldon is the author of “Character Development & Storytelling for Games,” and is in the midst of writing a book outlining that model, bearing the working title “The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game.”

A professional screenwriter and producer with more than 200 credits in popular television since the 1970s, Sheldon made his entrance into the gaming world as a byproduct of his writing, when a script he wrote (the pilot to a proposed TV series Otherworld) introduced him to Atari executives. The manufacturers sent Sheldon a box of games and an Atari 2600 console. Between playing games on the console and the games on the computer he used to write scripts, Sheldon became a gamer.

“I realized that I was playing games for fun, and the only television I was watching was for research — shows I was asked to write or produce,” Sheldon said. When frequent writers’ strikes interrupted his work as a screenwriter, Sheldon found he was “flirting with game companies.”

“The fact that I was a writer and also a gamer was attractive to them,” Sheldon said. “The game logic fit my brain. I’m not a programmer, not an artist, I’m a writer. But I learned quickly and I loved the challenge.”

In 1994, he joined game developer and publisher Sanctuary Woods Multimedia Inc., in Victoria, B.C., and started writing video games. His first hit was the 1995 “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!:The Riddle of Master Lu,” one of the last “huge adventure games,” said Sheldon.

To date, Sheldon has written and designed more than 20 commercial video games and massively multiplayer online games. With SouthPeak Interactive, Sheldon wrote full-motion video action adventure games like the 1998 “Dark Side of the Moon” and 1999 “Wild, Wild West: The Steel Assassin,” based on the Will Smith movie. After working on massively multiplayer online games for Cyan, Microsoft, and others, he came back to adventure games with a series of recent murder mystery games based on the novels of Agatha Christie.

He continues to work within the industry. He is currently design consultant and lead writer for a Star Trek game being produced by Gameforge, and has expanded his reach into teaching, first at Indiana University at Bloomington, and now at Rensselaer.

Throughout his career, Sheldon’s primary criticism of the industry has been its inattention to narrative. Graphics may astound, but video games have failed to transcend their medium to qualify as works of art, he said.

“A lot of people will say, ‘Oh it’s because it’s a young industry.’ But there have been commercial video games for over 30 years,” Sheldon said. “The first acknowledged art movie — ‘Birth of the Nation’ — was made in 1915, only 12 years after the first narrative movie,‘The Great Train Robbery,’ was made in 1903. That’s 12 years from first attempt to art.”

In addition to co-directing the program at Rensselaer, Sheldon is currently teaching Introduction to Game Design, which introduces students to the principles of creating and developing games from simple video games through today’s virtual worlds and real-world ARGs, and guides them in creating concept documents for games of their own.

Contact: Mary L. Martialay
Phone: (518) 276-2146
E-mail: martim12@rpi.edu

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Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,600 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.