Pixel Dust: Graduating Senior Fulfills Lifelong Dream to Be a Video Game Designer

By Tom McLaughlin

As a child, Steve Gussman watched intently as his older brother played video games such as “Super Mario 64.”

“But I was reluctant to try it out of fear that I might somehow break it,” recalls the graduating Rutgers University–Camden senior.

Gussman is creating a 3D digital scale model of the solar system that will allow users to interact with the planets, much like an interactive version of the “Cosmos” science documentary series.

Finally summoning the courage, Gussman was soon playing video games every day. And then it dawned on him: “I want to make video games!”

Fast-forward to the present day, as the Medford resident is now on the verge of breaking through to the next level – graduating from Rutgers–Camden with a self-proposed bachelor’s degree in holistic video game development and minors in digital studies and physics, and realizing his lifelong dream of working as a full-time video game designer.

The self-proposed major, he explains, was based on computer science and animation and included any game design, audio, and narrative-related courses that he could fit into his schedule. Gussman says that he “got to be an artist,” studying graphic arts, animation, introduction to creative writing, introduction to music theory, video game design, and interactive storytelling, among other subjects.

Moreover, his minor in digital studies, he says, offered him a chance to think creatively – and critically – about the roles of computer programming as an expressive medium and problem-solving tool. For his senior capstone, he is currently working on a 3D digital scale model of the solar system that will allow users to interact with the planets, much like an interactive version of the “Cosmos” science documentary series.

In addition, he notes, he had the opportunity to benefit greatly from participating in extracurricular programs and events organized under the tutelage of the newly opened Digital Studies Center at Rutgers–Camden.

It would be like finding a new realm with untold possibilities.

“When I first proposed my major, I didn’t even know that the Digital Studies Center was going to open or that there would be a minor in digital studies,” recalls the Marlton native, who took programming courses as a student at Cherokee High School. “It was all such a great surprise.”

Gussman helps a guest build his own interactive, mobile device at the Digital Studies Center table during Rutgers Day festivities

Among his experiences, Gussman served as the lead programmer of a student-created 2D side-scrolling video game called “Snip,” which required players to use their wits to overcome a series of physical obstacles in order to advance through the scene. In addition to programming the gameplay logic with his fellow coders, he was responsible for maintaining the GitHub repository of source code and documents, as well as facilitating the communication among programmers, graphic artists, writers, and animators.

“This project was right up my alley – more than anything I expected would be in my time here, considering that there is no established video game major,” he says. “I am so grateful that this project and the Digital Studies Center in general were set up during my time at Rutgers–Camden. It all lined up with what I was studying.”

Gussman also set out to gain professional experience as well. For the past two years, he has interned at Philadelphia-based Plas.md, a creative studio focusing on creating health, wellness, and educational applications. The Rutgers–Camden undergrad has worked primarily as a programmer on the Bionautica project, an interactive gaming experience for applications in both fitness and physical therapy.

As he explains, players run on a treadmill through a virtual woodlands landscape as biometrics data, such as heart rate and acceleration, are measured. One feature is that, if patients elevate their heart rate, the game will lead them to more visually appealing trails. Conversely, if their heart rate drops, it will lead them to more mundane settings.

“One of the main goals of the project is to create an incentive to work harder,” explains Gussman. “I would be happy if it did some good for players, be it through helping them get fit or acting as a tool in physical therapy.”

Gussman plans to devote even more time to the project after graduation. He is also entertaining the idea of exploring uncharted territory, such as pursuing a master’s degree or doctorate in physics, with ideas of perhaps one day combining computer science and physics working for an organization like NASA or SpaceX.

“I look forward to future endeavors in physics and computer science,” he says.

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