Building Build-A-Frank

The design process – Joe

Going into the project, I was excited to make a board game because of the creative expression the medium allows. There has been an explosion of adult board games and card games in recent years, with games like Cards Against Humanity and Catan proving that there’s more to the genre than Monopoly. One of my favorite aspects of these new games in particular is their unique designs. Some games like Exploding Kittens feature whimsical artwork that contribute in a crucial way to the game’s overall atmosphere.

Beyond these games, my inspiration for the card designs came in large part from the advertisements I saw on the subway in New York City this past summer. The subway is supremely overwhelming: the heat, abject grossness, and frustration that I associated with these rides was often made slightly less bad by the surprisingly beautiful advertisements featured above the seats. The things I loved most about these advertisements were their bold, bright color schemes that made them pop. They were unique, handsome, and made me feel like the brand was professional. Knowing that I was after all an amateur gamemaker, I wanted the card design to mimic these advertisements to lend that air of legitimacy to the game.

I selected the font Baskerville for the text of the cards for several reasons. For one, its letters have serifs, which make it look professional. At the same time, I think the font is attractive enough that it doesn’t quite look like something you would write a research paper with. It makes sure the cards remain fun.

As for the images, I designed three versions of each body part to coincide with the three tiers of cards. For common cards, which are the worst ones to get, I drew the bones in Photoshop to look like a decomposed body part. I used average looking body parts as inspiration for the uncommon cards, and muscular parts for the legendary cards. I knew how to use Photoshop before the project due to my interest in graphic design, but I did pick up a few new skills.

Legendary headOne such skill was designing a custom pattern. I wanted polka dot backgrounds for the cards, because it was a lively pattern that still wouldn’t distract from the artwork. However, Photoshop doesn’t have a built in polka dot stamp. Using YouTube tutorials, I was able to create three versions of the polka dot pattern, one for each card class. I was inspired by the video game Fortnite in determining the colors for each tier of body part. In Fortnite, weapons come in five tiers, and are colored to correspond with their tier. Gray weapons are the worst, blue are very good, and gold are the best. As such, I used those colors in the three polka dot patterns for their corresponding three tiers of body parts.

For the back design of the cards, I wanted to continue with the polka dot motif while evoking Frankenstein, as the game was supposed to be about the story in some way. As such, I used the traditional Frankenstein color scheme of green on black. I found the font Runaway, which had a monstrous feathering on its edges that fit in perfectly with the game’s themes.

Lastly, I needed to make a logo. Since I loved the look of the legendary head card, which was a top-hat sporting gentleman, I re-used the head and added the game’s title in Runaway font.

Back design

Formulating rules – Kevis

Designing the game was a fun task, and I had three important factors that I wanted the game to follow. I wanted the game to be easy to understand and play, as the game would be presented to strangers who wouldn’t be willing to spend ten minutes on rules and mechanics. Second, I wanted the game to be complex enough to feel like there was real depth and strategy. Finally, I wanted the focus of the game to be progressive, with a discrete system of gains and progress.

One of the first themes I thought of when creating a board game was the deck-building card game, Dominion. It is a game that uses the building of a personal deck to win the game and I liked the aspect of collecting cards to progress. We used a similar theme for Frankenstein, as the monster was made up of cadavers of different people. As part of game development, we considered previous games that people have played before as a basis for the game. Primarily, using things such as dice can add randomness and forms of variance while being very easy to understand for most. By keeping core player actions tied to dice, it flattens the learning curve and makes it easy to play from the beginning.

Another game that I took inspiration from is Not Alone, by Ghislain Masson. The aspect of this game that I took was to have several different locations that players could visit in attempts to progress in the game. From this, we thought of the four zones, the university, the chapel, the black market, and the graveyard. These different locations add elements of strategy. Different locations should have accompanying advantages and disadvantages. Players should feel like they have personal efficacy in the outcome and progression of the game. This is an essential part of what makes a game enjoyable as a player. In our game, the choosing of locations serves as the primary form of independent selection within the game rules and structure.

The third consideration for the game was interaction between players and the interaction with the game. I thought that a turn-based game would be the best choice for our needs. A turn-based game requires less explanation and is conducive to a simpler setup. It also allows each player to see the actions of others for strategic planning. For our goals of an easy-to-play game with strategic elements, this option made sense. Finally, Joe had a great suggestion for a money system. After weighing some options, we decided it made sense to tie in money gain to turn progression. I also seriously considered creating another zone: one to earn money in. This way, players would have even more freedom in deciding to either spend more time to gain a consistent progression through money or using the graveyard zones. Ultimately, I decided that it would complicate the game and make it too complex for us, the game designers. Balancing the money path and the “digging” path would be too important for the game, and I did not want to bog planning down with something like that. Game balance image.

Uncommon head

We divided up the tasks for actual game creation. I wanted to add checkpoints as a proof of progression and as another interactive factor, and I created events to fill this. Events are additional actions that occur that affect all players and are a definite sign of the game progressing. This way, turns were divided into groups of 3 cycles of all players, after which events would occur. In addition, this allowed for a defined time limit for players to complete the game. After the first player reached the end goal, other players would have the remainder of that turn group to also complete the game. It was a nice balance that allowed others to catch up instead of one instant winner while not forcing the first player to finish to wait too long for the completion of the game and rewarding that player for finishing first. I used a software called Nandeck for creating the event cards. Joe created the decks involving the body parts and the bones, which led to an interesting challenge of integrating my work with his, as I used this software and he used Photoshop. I spent quite some time considering how I wanted the events to affect players and balancing giving player interactivity and not affecting game state too much. I decided to err on the side of less impactful events; however, if this were to be a published game, I would likely make events a core aspect of the game’s progression. A few of the events allowed for the players to directly interact with each other. Given more time, I think I would add more aspects of this into the game, as the iteration we presented kept inter-player gameplay to a minimum.

Making it come to life – Leah

One of the coolest parts of my job was the game instructions. I emulated the format of the instructions sheet from some of my own favorite childhood games, such as Uno and Parcheesi. Additionally, I was able to create the logo for the game, which I made with the head and fonts Joe had made for the cards. I decided to use the head from the legendary skeleton because of the dapper top hat Joe had artfully included.

While the formatting was part of my assigned tasks, I really enjoyed the process of making the rules as it was the most collaborative part of the game making. We all took part in creating the rules; seeing which ideas worked, which didn’t, and which would be expanded upon to create a functional board game. The rules were changed and developed throughout nearly the entire process, evolving even through our first few game plays together as a group. As we made the final touches and tweaks to the rules in our playthroughs, it was truly exciting to see the game go from being a concept to being a reality. Granted, it was a lot of details, brainstorming and creativity from three different people, but it made for one cohesive, and pretty awesome, final product.

In addition to formatting the instructions, I was also in charge of finding and editing the images we would use for the board itself. The images I chose for game board were inspired by many of the Frankenstein media forms we explored in class, including both the 1931 and 1994 films. In keeping with the theme, I continued to choose black and white images to create a game board that looked as though they belonged together. I just made sure to add three little circles, using Joe’s font, on one image that would keep track of each round played.

Game instructions

Although the digital work was manageable, I really thrived at the non-digital crafting of the game. Next to our group collaboration on the instructions, working hands on with tangible objects was my favorite part of the process. I spent a few solid, serene hours painting each individual wooden money token and a few game pieces. Each gold and silver wooden coin got three layers of paint while my fingers received a few hundred. In addition to purchasing the tokens, paint, brushes, board and game pieces, I was also in charge of the printing, laminating and cutting of the board images and each individual playing card. It was time consuming and a learning process, as I discovered three different lamination options and several more options for printing paper in regards to size, thickness, and quantity. However, with (four hours worth of ) patience, a tedious manual paper cutting machine, and a very helpful Office Depot employee, I succeeded in helping to create a final product I was proud to be a part of.

The laboratory

We made a trailer for our game—check it out!

Animation as a Medium

I’ve been a huge fan of anime and animation in general for my whole life so I thought I’d use this space to share a few of my thoughts about a medium that I love.  (By the way, all the clips I added here are pretty short.)

At this point, becoming enchanted by Disney’s animated films as a young child is practically a universal experience and an integral part of growing up.  However, Disney style animation that caters towards kids is not the only kind of animation out there.  Over the last two decades Japanese animation, or anime, has seen a steady rise in popularity here in the west. And in particular, its popularity has exploded over the course of the last six years.  Back in 2012, the anime streaming service Crunchyroll had a mere 100,000 paying subscribers, making it a niche streaming service that catered to a relatively small community of fans.  However, last month the service announced that it had reached the 2 million subscriber threshold, a massive 20-fold increase in 6 years. The service now boasts over 45 million registered users and is one of the 10 largest online video streaming services out there (though it obviously lags behind leaders like Netflix).

This charts the number of paid subscribers to Crunchyroll from September 2012 to February 2017.

Animation as a medium excels at telling stories that are fantastical in nature.  What really makes it shine is that it immediately creates a level of separation between the fiction on the screen and reality.  The fact that the show is either hand drawn or rendered immediately sets up an expectation that the world inside the story is different from reality, which makes it easier for the audience to suspend their disbelief.  To add to this, the nature of the medium also allows for the seamless integration of magical effects into the fabric of the show. When a live action show wants to add effects, the effect must usually be computer generated and then added in after filming. But, the juxtaposition between a computer rendered effect and a live actors and settings can often feel jarring and take away from the immersion.  And, an effect created at the time of filming using real-world techniques lacks the mysticism and feeling of wonder that is so important in fantasy and fairy tales for the simple reason that it can be explained with real world physics. It is far easier make an effect feel like it belongs to the world of the story in animated shows as the artist simply has to draw them both in the same art style.  Also, if we take a look back to old classics like Cinderella, many of the effects in these films probably would have been impossible to do in live action with the technology of the time. For example, I can’t imagine the fallowing scene where Cinderella’s dress transforms would have been feasible in live action with the technology available in the 1950’s.

Another benefit of the medium is that it allows for the creators to have a great deal more artistic freedom.  Creators can get away with more exaggerated expressions and actions in animation than they can in live action, again because of the separation from reality. We expect real people to act in a certain way, but the same expectations are far weaker for those that are animated.  What can reasonably feel like a hyped up battle scene in Dragonball Z would probably end up as just a bunch of dudes screaming way too loudly at each other in live action.

This is a clip from an anime called Nichijou that uses extreme and absurd reactions to great comedic effect.  Such a reaction could never even be considered in live action. It’s just not feasible and would make no sense if the show wasn’t animated.

Finally, animation in the west has this stigma as being a children’s medium.  And to be honest, with how successful Disney has become, it makes sense. But animation isn’t a medium that’s made just for kids.  Over the years it has also been used to depict topics far beyond what would be appropriate for children.  I think the best example of this would be the 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies created by Studio Ghibli and director Isao Takahata.  Yes, this is the same studio that brought us wholesome classics such as Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service. But whereas those two are great children’s movies, Grave of the Fireflies is a devastating and heart wrenching drama about the true costs of war.  In this movie, animation transcends the medium and strikes at the heart of what it means to survive as a human.

Grave of the Fireflies is a fantastic film. I definitely recommend watching it, but be warned, it will make you Sad.

Youjia Wang

Edit: I noticed that in a place or two I accidentally forgot a

And the Kids Keep on Playing – Minecraft and Its Fandom

Throughout my time in high school I worked for Open World Events, an event production company based in Philadelphia. OWE produces massive STEM-inspired events across the country for young students and families. Their largest event, Minefaire, is an Official Minecraft Community event that brings together YouTubers, their fans, and players under one roof. Minefaire has four different shows in massive convention centers across the country this year alone, with three more already planned for 2019. Each show attracts between 10,000-20,000 Minecraft fans over the course of one weekend. As a very casual gamer and a complete stranger to Minecraft, I am continually shocked by the intense fandom that surrounds the game. What seems to me to be a simple game that allows players to use basic creative skills to build worlds with 3D blocks has recently become the second best-selling video game of all time, with nearly 154 million copies sold across all platforms. In an attempt to comprehend this reality that is so distant from my own, I will explore its various components and its place in the gaming community as a whole.

A significant part of the Minefaire experience and the greater Minecraft fandom is rooted in its YouTube presence. Some of the top Minecraft channels, PrestonPlayz, TheAtlanticCraft, Popular MMOs, and Aphmau boast respective subscriber counts of 7.4 million, 4.9 million, 15.5 million, and 4 million. That’s a lot of people.

Most popular video game centric YouTube channels focus on first-person shooter video games where the YouTuber attempts to kill as many other players in the most entertaining, unique way possible. Minecraft, however, is a sandbox video game in which the player is freed from the traditional video game structure and chooses what, when, and how they want to approach the game’s content. As such, Minecraft videos on YouTube are often creative, light-hearted, comedic videos that offer unique, entertaining expositions of the game. Some titles of recent popular videos include: “I WAS CRUSHED IN MINECRAFT,” “I ONLY HAVE 10 SECONDS TO MAKE IT TO THE END,” “WHAT’S BEHIND THIS DOOR IN MINECRAFT,” “TRY NOT TO LAUGH OR GRIN MINECRAFT CHALLENGE.” Here is one of these videos from UnspeakableGaming:

As Minecraft lacks a single defined objective, YouTube videos offer alternative ways for players to experience the game. They offer challenges, new skills, and entertaining commentary to viewers. In doing so, Minecraft YouTubers fully enhance players’ experiences with the game. Many YouTubers build on this experience with their own merchandise, online forums, and other social media accounts; each channel possesses its own community and fandom of sorts. The nature of Minecraft as a sandbox game makes it such that there are infinite forms their content may take. In this sense, channels are infinitely entertaining; they never get old.

At Minefaire events, many of these “famous” YouTubers are flown in from around the world to speak at the show. Their prominence is a very unique sort of celebrity; I find it difficult to fathom how hundreds of individuals would be willing to wait hours in line for a picture with someone whose face they don’t even see on YouTube.

Here are some pictures that demonstrate the scale of this event:

While it is difficult to see in these pictures, most of the event attendees are elementary school-aged children. This ties into Minecraft’s kid-friendly nature. Players don’t kill other players, but rather flex their creative muscles to find an experience in the game that appeals to them. It is all fairly wholesome; players build worlds, interact with other players, and exercise skills directly related to STEM fields. Microsoft even has a version of the game, Minecraft: Education Edition, that is designed specifically for classroom use.

The entire premise of Minefaire itself is to highlight these educational benefits of the game. Through workshops, educational speakers, YouTuber Q&A’s, and more, young students learn how their experience with the game applies to the real world.

This passage from an article about Minefaire’s show in Philadelphia last week highlights this:

“…father Chris Gordon was his two young daughters’ escort to an alternative digital universe of biomes, precious ores, the Creeper, and other creatures well-known to youngsters around the globe as Minecraft.

‘I love it — just to see the creativity. This one’s 2 years old,’ Gordon said, nodding to daughter Charlotte, ‘and she can build her own world.’

‘I like that you can do creative stuff,’ agreed sister Elizabeth, 9.”


Minecraft is a refreshing departure from other popular video games and their fan bases. It offers an educational, family-friendly, fun alternative to gaming. Unlike the League of Legends World Championship and the intense fandom that envelops the world of Esports, Minecraft and its community events have yet to be overrun by large corporations and overwhelming, world-class production. Minefaire is truly a community event, and this reflects the grounded nature of the game and of the social aspect of the larger community. Minecraft fans commit to the game for the sake of the game itself.

And the kids keep on playing. 

The Rise of the Female Gamer

Historically, games have been designed with males in mind. When game developers are creating a new game, they are focused on pleasing the male consumer because males have been the greater part of the gaming population. However, according to Entertainment Software Association, since 2006, the share of female gamers has risen from 38% to 45%. Now with almost half of the population of gamers being female and the female gamer continuing to rise, the context of the gaming tale is changing.

The old gaming culture is very male-centered. Male characters were often the only option of player. When a female character was featured, she was often over sexualized or acted as the damsel in distress. A common focus of games is a male character journeying and defeating foes to save the woman and be rewarded with her undying love.



Sporting games based of professional sports, such as NHL, 2k, and FIFA, are available for male teams only.Unknown-4.jpeg

Other wildly popular games consist of men killing each other over and over and over again. Call of Duty, a game ranked in the top 10 games of all time on almost every source, is a first person shooter game that originally takes place in World War II (however, spin off games take place in other settings of warfare). This male dominated video game features only male characters, despite the fact that according to a survey done by Steam, 48% of women play Call of Duty.

Don’t get me wrong, many girls do play and enjoy these games, however they follow a very male centered narrative that has recently seen a shift due to the rise of the female gamer. The time for males to be the sole owners of the label “gamer” is ending. Game developers have realized that almost half of their consumers are female and are adapting accordingly to satisfy their customers.

Character choices have started to include both men and women. From being able to compete as Princess Peach in Mario games to Mrs. Pacman, women are now represented in the action.  In 2017, Sledgehammer Games released Call of Duty WWII, which added female soldiers. This not only appeals to the women gaming audience, it is also historically accurate. According to, more than 350,000 women joined the military during the second World War.


Additionally, a new game called Iconoclasts is one of the best selling games of 2018. The main character, Robin, a female, must defeat enemies, solve puzzles, and venture past obstacles in order to escape the authoritarian group “One Concern” that has just overthrown the government. Games that have female lead characters are popular among the female and male gaming communities.


Due to the rise of the female gamer, the narrative of gaming has seen a shift to a more female inclusive environment. This feminist wave that society is currently undergoing, sometimes referred to as Third Wave Feminism, has caused for a demand for female diversity in gaming. Females are now more comfortable picking up a controller and playing a game knowing that they can be represented by another female and the ladies who have been long time gamers can feel included in the world of games.

Cassidy Tynan

When will the Fortnite fad fade?

For the last year, it has been basically impossible to avoid hearing about Fortnite. For those of you who have somehow escaped its ubiquity, Fortnite is an online, multiplayer battle royale game in which 100 competitors skydive onto an island, collect weapons and materials, and fight each other to be the last player standing. Cultural icons like Drake and Chance the Rapper have garnered hundreds of thousands of livestream views while playing, parents hire Fortnite tutors for their children, and as of July, the game’s developer Epic had earned over $1 billion from in-game purchases.

Sure, the game is fun, but its gameplay isn’t all that different from other battle royale games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, so its success feels outsized. What made it so much better than other offerings that it became unprecedentedly popular, not just within the gaming community, but in our larger popular culture as well?

What sets Fortnite apart from the rest of the field is its contagious spirit of creative whimsy. Unlike other shooter games that seek to emulate reality as closely as possible like Call of Duty or Battlefield, Fortnite makes sure not to take itself too seriously. Its candy-colored weapons include a disco ball grenade that makes your opponent dance uncontrollably. Players can earn or buy cartoonish character skins that include a gingerbread man, a tomatoheaded pizza fanatic, and a nightmarish nutcracker. You can even collect dance moves and celebrations including a sarcastic slow-clap or a dab:


Fortnite intentionally eschews expectations to create a weird, engrossing world that stands at the intersection of gaming and imagination. And while other games have prioritized originality and playfulness before, Fortnite invites players to join in on the creativity. In recent months, YouTube has exploded with players’ “highlight reels,” which are compilations of game clips that exhibit their skill or funny moments in Fortnite. From such videos, professional gamers like Ninja and Tfue have built huge fan followings, regularly receiving millions of views on their videos. Take the following highlight reel from player FatPlanet85542 for example: 

The video exhibits serious skill at the game, just as a highlight reel from any video game would. But what sets this apart, and has made such videos so popular for players to both watch and make, is the creative expression that Fortnite affords players in creating them. The background music, Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” is an upbeat anthem that gives the video a carefree tone. The intertextuality at play in combining gameclips with popular music feeds Fortnite’s reputation of being not just a videogame, but a freestanding member of the zeitgeist in its own right.

The video humorously zooms in on the faces of opponents just before the FatPlanet kills them, poking fun at their last moments in a moment of dark humor that only seems to work because of the juxtaposition of cartoonish graphics and mortality:


At one point, the player does the worm dance as an opponent tries to kill him, a display of braggadocio and skill that makes it all the more entertaining when he gets up from the dance and kills the opponent. The video concludes with one final joke as the player tosses up an image of a tombstone just before he kills the final opponent to win the game:


As this highlight reel shows, Fortnite has made playing the game about more than just winning; it challenges you to play creatively, think outside the box, and share how imaginative you can be with an audience of millions of other players. Not only does this drive fan engagement and build a crucial subculture of paying customers, but it has kept the game relevant for far longer than most cultural fads in the internet age.

In the spirit of this post, I have tried my hand at creating my own Fortnite highlight reel. It is not nearly as impressive as the ones referenced above, but I sought to emulate all of its best characteristics: repurposed cultural references from outside of Fortnite, some exciting plays, and a spirit of whimsy. Check it out below:

  • Joe Lovinger

Subverting Tropes in Video Games

Tropes and subversion are nothing new. Tropes range from Chekhov’s Gun to the oft-maligned “110%”. It is hard to define exactly what a trope is, but sites like exist solely to track and explain tropes that exist in all forms of media. And where there are tropes, there are creators and creative minds trying to avoid being too cliché. Marvel films have received great critical acclaim for finding humorous and interesting ways to subvert the tropes audiences have come to expect in superhero movies. The Cabin in the Woods is a famous example for intentionally subverting as many tropes as possible present in the horror film genre. When any work plays with expectations, it feels fresh, new, and exciting. This is especially true in traditional forms of media because the mediums are old enough for writers and critics alike to thoroughly understand them.

But video games have their own tropes. Press A to jump. Sure, you jump a lot, so the button closest to your thumb makes the most sense as the jump button. The standard progression through a series of levels to reach an eventual conclusion and end game screen is a trope. It makes sense from a game design perspective, and allows developers to break up their games into smaller chunks that give players more obvious checkpoints and frequent feelings of accomplishment. Usually, tropes make sense.

Unlike other forms of media, though, some video game tropes exist simply because they have always existed. Some have good reason, others do not. Nearly every 2D platformer – think Super Mario Bros. or Donkey Kong – starts with the player moving to the right. There is no objective superiority to going right instead of left, and yet because games exactly like Super Mario Bros. featured levels in which the player only ever progressed from left to right, nearly every other game that has followed in its footsteps has done the same. Being able to defeat enemies by jumping on their heads is another trope that came out of Super Mario Bros. It makes little sense – why is jumping on something the only way to kill it? When was the last time you saw someone get into a fight and win it by planting their feet onto the top of their adversary’s skull? The limited combat in the early games that defined the medium was born from the limitations of the platforms they were developed on, and yet even as technology has progressed and we have the possibility to create combat systems in games that are much more complex, the notion of jumping onto an enemy to knock them out remains present in a surprising number of games. Some, like Yooka-Laylee and even more recent Mario titles like Super Mario Odyssey, still even focus on it as the primary means of combat, trying to use nostalgia as a driving element in their design.

But not every game falls victim to the oft dubious tropes common in the industry. While many games are happy to include left-to-right movement and jump-centric combat, others like to ask questions and reconsider the assumptions most games and gamers make about the medium.

Undertale is one of the most popular examples of a game that strives to do exactly this. The question it asks is, “Are enemies really enemies? Do you need to fight them?” And with that question, it toys with its players’ expectations. It puts the player into combat against monsters with the cursor automatically hovering over the fight option, and it fully expects its players to fight and slay the creatures. At the end of the game, however, it asks players if what they did was really necessary. Who was the real monster – the aggressive invader slaying creatures in their home, or those same creatures trying to defend themselves and their society against that invader? The game encourages players to play the game again, and it quickly becomes obvious that it is possible to end every encounter peacefully. The game takes on a lighter, happier tone as you progress through a second, pacifist playthrough, and the empty landscapes the player experienced on their first run are instead vibrant and filled with the life that had been killed on the first run.

It’s a really simple question that Undertale asks, and yet it makes a lot of sense. Most traditional forms of media do not involve slaying monsters and frequent combat, so why are those elements deemed almost vital to video games? Is it fun? Can’t we have fun some other ways, too?

Another great example of subversion is the game Antichamber, which really aims to question everything about the medium. If you’ve got the time, this introduction to the game (with commentary from the developer) exemplifies what it is about: 

The gist, if you couldn’t watch it, is that we don’t need to take anything for granted. Falling down into a pit doesn’t have to be defeat for the player. A choice need not be whether to go left or right – why not turn around? A wall isn’t even necessarily a wall. Just walk through it.

Next time you’re playing a game, maybe ask a few questions. It is easy enough to get used to something and expect that to be the way it will always be. But in a medium so new and unexplored, we have a lot of interesting things we can do outside of the tropes we’ve built up around it.

STEM Education for Everyone

In this day and age, there has been a major push towards encouraging previously underrepresented populations into the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Most specifically, there has been a major focus on STEM programs for young women, such as Girls Who Code and Scientista. However, there are many other underrepresented populations who have a passion for and interests in STEM, including those who many still disregard, such as students in prison. The importance of rehabilitation over punishment and penalization has been increasingly studied and understood, especially in the wake of increased incarceration rates due to the war on drugs. According to College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons by Christopher Zoukis, published in 2014, he states that 2.3 million people make up the United States prison population, with over 70% of those in prison being non-violent. The rate of recidivism, the rate in which people return to prison, decreases by an astounding amount when an individual in prison invests in their education. According to Zoukis’s data, the rate of recidivism for those with high school diplomas is 55%, and goes down to a return rate of 5.6% with a bachelor’s degree.

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So why specifically STEM Education? In its program’s mission, STEM-ucate Initiative for Reentry explains: “Recidivism research indicates that education and/or vocational training drastically reduces an individual’s chance of returning to prison. The STEM-ucate Initiative for Reentry (SIR) will educate formerly incarcerated individuals, develop their STEM skills, and provide them with the resources needed to succeed after incarceration in the 21st Century.” STEM-ucate is unique even for a reentry program because of its focus on both the education and preparation for STEM field jobs. This program has taken experts in their fields and used their knowledge and connections to not only educate men and women in prison, but to use their connections to help the students create their own network in the STEM field of their choice. Additionally, STEM-ucate uses predictive information about future large job markets such as IT to make sure their students aren’t just getting the education, but are hopefully able to put it to use as they build their new life outside of prison. 

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Dr. Lauren Wolf, a former teacher of Math in New York State Prisons, who now works with SIR.

In addition to STEM-ucate, there are other programs, such as STEPs to STEM, created by chemistry professor, Jannette Carey, and astronomy professor, James Gunn of Princeton University. This educational pilot program hopes to shift the school-to-prison pipeline to “a statewide STEM pipeline within an integrated program of community college education throughout the state prisons of New Jersey.”  These types of programs are crucial because those who find themselves involved with the criminal justice system are often left to fend for themselves once released. This might manifest as being expected to leave prison after having served their time with no resources or specific skillset to help them find a sustainable job. If the purpose of prison is to have people learn from their prior mistakes and come out a better person,  they must have the support and education in order to do so.

Leah Fogel


Department of Chemistry, editor. “PRINCETON SPONSORED PRISON STEM EDUCATION PROGRAM RECEIVES NSF INCLUDES AWARD.” Department of Chemistry, edited by The Trustees of Princeton University, 13 Sept. 2016,

Stem-ucate Initiative Reentry, editor. “Stemucate Initiative.” Stem-ucate Iniative Reentry,

Zoukis, Christopher. “College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons.” Prison Education, 2014,


Ready Player One – the future and the past?

“Will this really happen in the future?”

This is a natural question that everyone asks when reading Ready Player One. Nerds like me ask this with a hopeful tone, wanting a society (without the overcrowding and unemployment) where escaping to a video game has become the cultural norm. When the feasibility of The Oasis was questioned during class discussion, people acknowledged that it would be tremendously difficult from a technological standpoint.

However, games have already proven that they can evolve quickly. Despite its short history, games have made tremendous improvements. Just ~40 years ago, we had simple games like Space Invaders. Today, there are games like the No Man’s Sky that have computer generated open universe with 18 quintillion planets. Players can explore every detailed inch of these planets, collecting resources or combating hostile creatures in the process. Players can also engage in space battles against pirates trying to steal your loot or against sentinels (who attack you if you engage in piracy yourself). Although No Man’s Sky has received mixed reviews, it illustrates that video game developers today can make a simulated universe with a vast number of planets that each have their own unique weather, terrain, and inhabitants.

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Space Invaders (1967)

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No Man’s Sky (2016). Top gif shows player gathering resources at an unknown planet. Bottom gif shows player engaged in a space battle. 

Games today have realistic graphics, support millions of players simultaneously, and are on the verge of significant improvements in augmented and virtual reality experiences. All of these contribute to creating a virtual world that gamers can be immersed in.  Because technology tends to improve exponentially, improvements at this rate will lead to games that are indistinguishable from reality. Therefore, it does seem likely that something like the Oasis is in our future.

However, many people have asked a different question about the virtual worlds depicted in Ready Player One and The Matrix.

Are we living in a simulation?

This is the same thing as asking if a virtual world , completely indistinguishable from the real world, has already been developed in the past and we are the subjects in it. When Elon Musk , CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, was asked this question in an interview, he replied saying, “ the odds that we are in a base reality is one in a billions.” Meaning, he thinks that there is a 99.99% chance that we are living in a world of Sims.

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Fun fact: Lord of the Rings is one of Elon Musk’s favorite book as well as his source for inspiration for saving humanity. 

He’s not alone. Many relevant articles seem to indicate that the Silicon Valley is obsessed with the simulation hypothesis. An interview with Sam Altman, CEO of Y Combinator that develops tech companies, revealed that two unnamed billionaires are funding scientists to break out of the matrix. It was also reported that a Bank of America analyst believes that there is a 50% chance that we live in a Matrix – like simulation.

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Elon Musk and others are convincing not just because of their accomplishments and enormous salaries (think billions). The logic also makes sense. As we are on the cusp of a new wave of augmented and virtual reality technologies, it has become clear that virtual worlds such as the Oasis and the Matrix are very possible in the future. If they are possible, then how can you say that they haven’t happened yet? To many, the question of the future of virtual reality is really also a question about the past. When you ask about one, you are also asking about the other.

Humans and Monsters

Level Up Gif
Leveling Overlay in MMORPG Maplestory

“Yes! Finally level 150! Time to grab that sweet gear!”

“Amazing, I’m only level 100. Gotta go grind more mobs to catch up, I guess.”

The feeling of euphoria and achievement when reaching high levels in RPGs after killing many thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of computer-controlled monsters is not at all uncommon to many online video-game players. After all, that time and dedication paid off in the form of higher character statistics! Now your warrior can swing that blade even harder and mage can cast fireballs that burn even brighter! All… to what, kill even more monsters? Look cool in your fancy new armor?

Have you ever thought about all of those monsters’ lives that you took to get a little tiny bit more EXP?

MMO Monster Kill
Fighting in MMO Canto

No, I have never.

That is, until I discovered the RPG named Undertale.

Undertale Logo
Undertale Logo

(Huge spoiler alert for Undertale!)

I know, I know, for those of you who already know of Undertale, even bringing up its game can cause lots of groans and shaking of heads, but hear me out. Undertale, for me, completely changed the meaning of a RPG and how it conveyed such deep and emotional meaning about how a player normally treats games astonished me.

Here’s the rundown:

Undertale, a wildly successful indie game with its endearing 8-bit art style, starts out the same way as many single player RPGs do. The main character, a human played by you, had climbed a very tall mountain, found a crater, and fell down into the underground, where all of the monsters have been exiled to after losing a war to the humans.

Fallen Down
Undertale: Fallen Down

The obvious goal is to get past all of these monsters trying to kill you and return to the overworld. Almost immediately, you notice you have a LV number, HP (hit-points), and AT (attack), DF (defense), EXP stats.

Stat Panel
Undertale: Character Info (Note: This player named themselves “Shulk”)

Again, highly reminiscent of most RPGs. However, Undertale has one glaring difference. You can progress through the entire game without killing a single monster. As the story unfolds, you are informed that the monsters attack due to their fear of humans, but you can choose to talk to them, give them mercy, and spare them instead of killing them. Undertale’s fighting mechanism is bullet-hell, meaning that your Soul, represented as a heart, must dodge all of the missiles in a box to avoid taking damage.

Act Menu
Undertale: Actions Menu in a Monster Encounter

While the player continues not to kill any monsters, the main storyline progresses. The human is taken through the whole underground on their main mission to leave the Underground, forming friendships with the boss monsters along the way. Notable ones include Toriel, the tu“Toriel” monster who teaches the player to be merciful at the beginning, Papyrus, a goofy skeleton-soldier-in-training, Sans, Papyrus’ interesting and punny brother, and Asgore, the king of the Underground.

Pictured from Left to Right: Toriel, Asgore, Sans, Papyrus

The player learns that the monsters are kept Underground by a magical barrier that was created after the war to keep humans safe that will not allow monsters to pass. Only a being with the both the soul of a human and a monster is allowed to exit from the Underground, and the barrier can only be shattered with 7 human souls.

Undertale: The Barrier

Coincidentally enough, there are 6 already collected… and you know what this means.

You’re up next.

Collected Souls
Undertale: Collected Souls

Furthermore, the player learns of the first human to ever fall into the Underground. This person was adopted by Asgore and Toriel, who were the royal couple back in those days. The human was the pride and joy of the Underground, and was treated the same as their biological son. However, the human became sick after eating too many buttercups, and became terminally ill. Their last wish was to see the golden flowers in their home village. Thus, Asgore and Toriel’s son absorbed the soul of the human and passed through the barrier to carry their now-lifeless body to the flowers.

Golden Flowers

Undertale: Golden Flowers

While the son held the human though, other villagers witnessed the dead human in the arms of a monster, and assumed he had killed them. The humans mauled Asgore’s son nearly to death, but had enough strength left to straggle back into the Underground and die on a bed of buttercups. Due to the war to force the monsters out of the Overworld and this event, monsters were persistently seen by the humans as purely malevolent creatures and would be killed on sight, like in almost all other MMORPGs.

This idea was interesting to me because in all other games, I simply accepted that the monsters were “bad” and killed them because they hurt me. I never considered that it could be a world where the monsters were forced off of their rightful territory and killed due to their resistance, a surprising connection between MMORPGs and European history.

Christopher Columbus arrives on the San Salvador peninsula, Bahamas, 1492. (John Vanderlyn)

Now here’s the twist:

In Undertale, I had mentioned you can be kind and spare all of the monsters, but there’s another path as well. You can choose to fight and kill every monster you encounter, even the ones that would have become your friend and are the main characters. You can walk around and discover monsters (much like Pokémon), then kill them all, until instead of encountering a monster, only a dialog pops up on the screen reading, “But nobody came.”

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Undertale: Fighting
Nobody Came
Undertale: But Nobody Came

Killing all of the monsters in every area takes quite a while to accomplish, and the player is met with sad lines with each kill, such as:

“Froggit is trying to run away.”

“Lesser Dog tucks its tail between its legs.”

“Whimsalot’s flying stutters.”

However, the effect on the player diminishes after many monster kills. I have watched many, many playthroughs online on Youtube of players who first completed the “Pacifist Route”, where they made friends with and spared all of the monsters, and then started the “Genocide Route”, what killing every single monster in the game is called. They all initially felt that killing the monsters was wrong, but cared less and less about the monsters after each kill. Not too long afterwards, they treated it more like a chore to sit through and kill each of them.

When the player continues on the Genocide Route, all of the previous map puzzles are gone, the dialog between boss monsters and the player is altered, and notably, the player’s LV rises. After the player kills every monster in the game up until the Last Corridor, their LV reaches 19.

Undertale: LV 19 Stat Panel in Hallway
Last Corridor
Undertale: Last Corridor

Once the player reaches the hallway to Asgore’s chamber room, they are unexpectedly met with Sans standing at the end of it. This hallway is named the Last Corridor. He speaks to the player and if they are on the Genocide Route, says the following:

Sans Talk Genocide
Undertale: Sans Genocide Speech

“heya. you’ve been busy, huh? … so, i’ve got a question for ya. do you think even the worst person can change…? that everyone can be a good person, if they just try?”


Oh, by the way, if you’ve assumed that I meant “level” up to now by LV, you should now know that it actually stands for LOVE, or Level of Violence… which explains why it rises with every kill. Attack also rises because for each Level of Violence you gain, you feel less and less sympathy for them and are able to do more damage.

Reflecting on this, it made me think about how Sans had really believed in the human to change and make the right choice not to kill everything and everyone completely. It made me think about the outside world, and how even people who have done terrible, terrible things have realized their faults and mistakes, then changed to become a better person. However, in this game on this route, the player cannot decide otherwise at this point. After Sans finishes saying this, the player sprite moves forward at him involuntarily. The player is now locked in on True Genocide and must fight Sans. He is, hands down, the hardest boss fight in the entire game.

Sans Fight Gif
Undertale: Sans Fight

This is because Sans is trying to stop you, the monster, from destroying the entire world outside of the Underground too. At this point, you are no longer the protagonist, but the antagonist, and this fight against you can be compared to a typical player fighting the end boss of a video-game, stereotypically, the “one who is going to destroy the world”.

Grinding mobs? Check.

Gaining higher stats? Check.

Obtaining and using better gear to do damage? Check.

Super-ultra-difficult boss fight that you will eventually attempt over and over to beat?



By slowly reversing the roles in the Genocide Route, making the player feel nothing while killing their former friends, Undertale has successfully mimicked the layout of a typical RPG while conveying the opposite message. I was completely enthralled at how Undertale managed to make me feel so many different emotions regarding a game style that I had played for years upon years, and never gave a second thought to. My childhood consisted of another popular MMORPG at the time, named Maplestory, but I had never considered the cute, pixelated monsters as anything else besides bags of cash and items to wear.

It really made me think about forced points of view within games… and within societies in general. At war, your own country or your own “team” always seem like the Humans, and the opposing side always seem like the Monsters, but there are two sides to the coin and there are always two different stories.


Who considers your Humans, their Monsters?

 – Vivian Li

By The Way