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At GenCon this week, Informatics shows off with demos, games, and an appearance by bestselling author Tracy Hickman.

Informatics gets its game on

A converted computer, or part of a mad scientist's lab? A converted computer, or part of a mad scientist's lab?

Flash games. 3-D games. Comics. Augmented reality games. Glyphs that uncover a hidden image when viewed through a webcam. These are some of the highlights of the School of Informatics booth (Booth 1026) at GenCon, August 13-16. Every August, approximately 28,000 gamers descend upon downtown Indianapolis for GenCon, a convention focusing on games, science fiction, and fantasy. GenCon, the third largest convention held in Indianapolis, has previously been unknown territory for the School of Informatics, but it is an untapped source of potential students.

One of the student-created games that will be on display at GenCon. One of the student-created games that will be on display at GenCon.

At first the relationship between the School and GenCon may not be obvious, but as Dezra Despain in student services in Informatics explains, "To us it's a no-brainer. We are really expanding our game track in Media Arts and Sciences and GenCon is so full of gamers from all walks of life. It goes beyond GenCon; they are highly intelligent in the sciences, which is surprising to a lot of people, but when you talk to them they have a strong science background. We see not just the gaming track but the science track. There are just a lot of individuals there that would truly fit in our program."

The glyph on this button is more than meets the eye when viewed through a webcam. The glyph on this button is more than what it appears with the naked eye.

The School isn't starting small this year. The booth will feature tables with computers set up to provide interactive demonstrations of Flash and 3-D games that have been created by students. A large flat-screen TV will showcase work by students, alumni, and faculty. Comic book art lines the walls, and the whole booth has a flavor of Doctor Who in a steampunk lab. "We aim to provide a fun and engaging introduction to the School of Informatics," says Mathew Powers, a lecturer at the School of Informatics and the driving force behind the school's booth. Visitors to the booth can watch the demos, play games, and collect glyphs that reveal themselves to be more than meets the eye when viewed through a webcam.

From story to technology: Killer Dinner

Informatics is also running an event, featuring a well-known celebrity, that sounds like it belongs in the Convention Center. This event, Killer Dinner, is a knockoff of Killer Breakfast, which is run by Tracy and Laura Hickman at GenCon every year. Tracy Hickman, along with with Margaret Weis, authored the bestselling and perennially popular Dragonlance books. The description of Killer Breakfast is simple, but eloquent:

"A rampaging gamemaster, relentless hordes of first-level characters facing certain death against monsters that will kill them on an initiative roll alone."

Tracy and Laura Hickman Tracy and Laura Hickman perform at Killer Breakfast at Lucca Comics and Games 2008.

It may sound like a stretch to include a bestselling fantasy author for an event for the School of Informatics, but there are very solid ties between the two. "One thing we intend to do is show how no matter what your media, no matter what you are designing, you have to have a basis of a story," says Despain. "Tracy is a master storyteller, and we want to emphasize the importance of that."

Hickman explains further: "Killer Breakfast is a good demonstration of the very heart of what informatics is all about because the mission of informatics is to explore how technology can convey information and entertainment. Killer Breakfast has evolved to the point where we have a very complex structure to support the game. Technology is available so I can produce a new and tailored DVD to convey what we need for Killer Breakfast just on my desktop. These are the kinds of applications that informatics is working toward."

Killer Dinner won't be a copy of this year's Killer Breakfast. Part of what Killer Dinner will feature is Hickman explaining the importance of story. Although informatics may be the application of technology to creative human applications, you have to have, at the basis, a story to tell. "That's why it's such a good marriage," says Hickman. "At Killer Dinner, not only will I be able to talk about story and how it conveys meaning, but we'll be able to demonstrate how these modern technologies can be applied to real-time entertainment."

"Killing characters is easy, comedy is hard. To do that, you need support, and the proper application of technology does that." -Tracy Hickman

Hickman explains why the School of Informatics is such a good match for GenCon attendees, "I run into so many creative people at the convention, many of whom I think are at a loss as to how to take that creativity and apply it meaningfully. Where do you go, if you have a hugely creative mind, to make that into a career? Where do you take the fantasies that you love and the sci-fi vision you love and turn that into a reality? Many of the people who come to this con are looking for that, and it's a gateway that informatics can provide."

Event information

Killer Dinner will be at the ICTC 152 on Thurday, August 13, from 7pm-9pm. Tickets are available to Informatics students at the Informatics office between Monday, August 10, and Wednesday, August 12. On Thursday morning, the remainder of the tickets will be sold for $5 each at the School's booth at GenCon, Booth 1026.

Informatics is also opening its doors to the public on Thursday evening at 5:30pm before Killer Dinner. Visitors will have a chance to tour the building and learn about current research. Video game design is just one aspect of Informatics; though it may be the one that most GenCon attendees will be interested in, cutting-edge applications technology in any form is still pretty cool to the geek crowd.

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