Inside Rensselaer
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Former Hollywood Screenwriter Joins Game Studies Program

Lee Sheldon, the new co-director of the 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.

“Storytelling 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 this fall, 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?”

Earlier this year, the Princeton Review named Rensselaer’s GSAS program number 5 in its ranking of “Top 50 Undergraduate Game Design Programs,” in partnership with GamePro magazine.

A professional screenwriter and producer with more than 200 credits in popular television since the 1970s, Sheldon got into gaming as a byproduct of writing, when a script he wrote linked him with Atari executives. Atari sent Sheldon a box of games and an Atari 2600 console. Between playing games on the console and games on the computer he used to write scripts, Sheldon became a gamer. He soon found himself considering offers of work within the video game industry.

“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 is currently design consultant and lead writer for a Star Trek game being produced by Gameforge.

Sheldon previously taught game design at Indiana University, Bloomington, and models his classes as a multiplayer game. He 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.

In addition to co-directing the program at Rensselaer, Sheldon is currently teaching Introduction to Game Design.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 4, Number 18, November 19, 2010
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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