Undergrad research opportunities: designing video games, challenging seniors

February 26, 2014 by Muna Rahman

Faculty and graduate students at the University of Toronto are recognized around the world for their path-breaking research. But many undergraduate students are also drawn to U of T for the chance to undertake research in the laboratory, in the field, at home and abroad.

U of T News asked undergrad Muna Rahman to share her recent experience of the Research Opportunities Program offered by the Faculty of Arts & Science:

I stumbled across the program on the Arts & Science website and, being a computer science student, I looked at the computer science research opportunities.

Having only completed three computer science courses as a first-year undergraduate student, I was still mulling a major in the field, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the hands-on research course, CSC299Y1: a course about developing video games that could potentially improve the cognitive abilities of seniors.

I had played video games, admired the graphics and creativity of video games, but had never considered developing my own. This was a perfect chance to build my skills and distinguish myself from the other six hundred or so first-year Computer Science students.

At our first class, I immediately saw how friendly and enthusiastic our professor, Steve Engels, was as he described the research project to the ten of us. As the summer term went on, I found that, instead of a typical lecture where a professor demonstrates precisely how to code, every week we had one two-hour meeting during which we discussed key characteristics of video games, what makes a good video game, and how to create a video game aimed at a specific audience.

Independent Work, Group Feedback

For the first month, we worked independently on developing small projects. These projects ranged from developing the simplest version of Brick Breaker on a standard-size computer screen, to a one-person adventure game complete with graphics and various levels. At the start of our weekly meetings that first month, each of us presented our video games and received feedback from the rest of the class. Wearing a t-shirt and jeans, professor Engels would always be the last to give his opinion, acting more like a mentor to us rather than a traditional professor.

Theory meets reality: what seniors really need

During the second month, professor Engels brought in a visiting cognitive scientist to talk to us about the psychological aspect of the course. She told us what technologies seniors felt more comfortable with, advised us on how to keep our games simple yet still improve cognitive abilities, and, most importantly, emphasized that our games should avoid the idea of mortality. At this point, we paired off and started to envision what sort of games we wanted to develop.

Working as a team

The following week, we presented two to three summaries of different video game concepts. Following our presentations, our classmates gave us their feedback as to which game would be the most effective, and we decided which game concept to pursue. For the next four weeks, my partner and I worked tirelessly to come up with a demo of our final video game, Delivery Mania. This was intended to be a senior-friendly delivery game that tested memory, and the player was given a list of items to deliver to unique destinations; it was up to the player to remember where to deliver each item.

Testing the games with seniors

After two months, each pair of students had a demo version of their video game ready to be tested on their target audience, seniors. These seniors were anyone that we could get in contact with, whether they be our grandparents, seniors at a retirement home, or random strangers. Games received a wide range of feedback: sometimes positive comments and sometimes surprising notes such as, “Your video game sparked rage and frustration among the seniors” (which just might have been my team’s game!).

Throughout the evaluation process, Professor Engels reminded us that we were still first-year students, with no prior experience developing video games. In fact, after only four months, we had not only built our own video games, but had had them tested on our target audience, and evaluated the results.


This course gave us a glimpse of the realities of working in the technology industry. No teaching assistants to grade your work, but colleagues stating their opinions. No final exam to regurgitate information memorized the night before, but students submitting a final report reflecting on the entire research experience. No professor giving instructions on how to do things step by step, but instead encouraging students to independently research and apply the information needed to accomplish a task.

The Research Opportunities Program allowed me to tackle a challenge outside the standard classroom environment and showed me what it was like to adapt to a different work environment, which is a useful skill in the real world.

I highly recommend that students of any discipline step out of their comfort zone and away from their textbooks and experience the various research opportunities for which the University of Toronto is renowned.