While lockdown continues, the University of Lincoln has come up with a brilliantly creative means of showing prospective students what it’s like on its city centre campus.
From pirate ships and giant parrots to duelling university professors and dancing students, one of the University of Lincoln’s campuses has been reimagined in a unique video game.
In the fantasy game, the city centre Brayford Pool Campus becomes Lincoln Island – a fictional pirate island but with familiar buildings, landmarks and people for visitors to meet.
University on Lincoln Island is the brainchild of Dr Chris Headleand, who is director of teaching and learning at the school of computer science. While on paternity leave, Chris found he was spending a lot of time in a comfortable office chair with his newborn son snuggled to sleep on his chest.
With his arms free and time on his hands, Chris started to play around with a virtual campus map – which later morphed into an exciting new way of beating at least one problem caused by the pandemic – how to ‘virtually’ show prospective new students around campus and introduce them to staff.
The game provides an immersive experience of campus life. In the virtual world, each of the university's buildings is exactly to scale and in the correct locations, as are all paths, the railway and even the marina, but everything has a fantasy pirate twist. Gamers travel around the island, meeting people and completing exciting quests.
Chris, who lectures in games design and ethics, explains the thinking behind the game:
“At the moment, we are all having to stay at home but, for many of us, the Brayford Campus feels like a part of our home and we miss being there. Many prospective students will also have hoped to visit the campus before coming here for their studies, but with the current government advice they are unable to do that.
“Through this game they can at least take a tour, get a sense of where everything is and meet some of the people they'll be learning from and alongside.”
Lincoln Island features more than 100 non-player characters (NPCs) based on real-life university personalities, from students and support staff to professors and deputy vice-chancellors. Chris is featured too, complete with trademark cowboy hat and accompanied by his Old English sheepdog, Riley, who’s a regular campus visitor while on ‘walkies’.
Immortalised as AI characters on Lincoln Island, the characters give useful advice, deliver study tips and provide information about themselves, the campus and the city of Lincoln, all based on their own personal opinions and experiences.
“Sixty of our current students have created their own NPC, who will tell you about their experiences here,”
"So, if you were hoping to attend an open day but haven't been able to do so, it's still possible to meet students and staff as virtual people and have a quick chat.
“I hope that, by engaging with this game, students could feel less anxious about moving to Lincoln and joining our community, because they will already know their way around and they will ‘meet' some of the friendly people here to support them.”
The game features Lincoln's level crossings – a familiar part of the campus experience for all students and staff – and it is also day and night synchronised, so that when it is night-time on campus it is night-time in the game. Hundreds of minute details have been recreated in this way to make the Lincoln Island experience as realistic as possible, albeit with a fantasy pirate twist!
Chris already had the skills and equipment necessary to create the game, so direct financial investment wasn’t necessary, but he reckons it took up about 1,000 hours to complete over four weeks and he’s grateful that the university supported the idea.
But is Chris’s approach to engaging prospective students easily replicable by other universities?
“It is achievable, certainly,”
“Modern games technologies really democratise this kind of stuff and anybody can download software and get a foot in the door of game development. There's nothing that you can't do with the range of free, open source tools that are available now, like Gamemaker and Blender."
At the time of writing, just two days after the game was posted on the University of Lincoln’s “new applicants” Facebook page, it was viewed more than 8,600 times.
To download and play, visit the game's page on the Microsoft website.
Chris gives more tips on how video games can help learning on the University of Lincoln Virtual Classroom Facebook page.