When Jingyu Zhuang discovered his family in Nanchang, China might not be able to attend his college graduation this May, he got creative.
The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute student realized he could use his skill developing video games to bring his family — and other families — closer together during the pandemic. In several months, he created Voyage, an open-world sandbox-style multiplayer game using geo-data from Google Maps, allowing players to travel the Earth together. The game lets players plant trees and explore various places, and more importantly, it allowed Zhuang’s parents to visit his new home.“
“As a senior planning to have my whole family coming to the United States to attend my graduation ceremony, our whole plan was ruined by the endless growing number of infections,” Zhuang said. “And I am definitely not the only one suffering from the pandemic. So I created this project, to answer the problem in my own way as a game developer.”
This week, thanks to Zhuang’s innovative game and his other work, he became the inaugural recipient of local game developer Vicarious Visions’ Pathfinder Award. He earned a scholarship — created as a partnership between RPI’s Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program and the developer — for his excellence in game development.
“The ways [students] use games to reflect on their life experiences is often very profound,” said Ben Chang, director of the RPI program. “It’s interesting to see this project from Jingyu that really brings people together in the pandemic because that’s so often on everyone’s minds. It’s something games have enabled people to do during this difficult year.”
Zhuang first discovered games at age 6, when he and his dad started playing the strategy game Go. He realized the experience was like no other.
“And as I grew older, I got to know a lot of different games and realized that games, as an interactive medium, can provide players with a lot more than just entertainment,” Zhuang said. “It can carry values and impacts. And that’s the reason I decided to come to the U.S. and learn how to make my own games. And my goal is always to make innovative and meaningful experiences for the audience.”
The developer created his first game after being introduced to online tutorials in high school and he has since created about 10 games in the classroom after starting school at RPI. Zhuang has participated in about 10 Game Jam competitions, where participants make games from scratch in 48 hours. He’s won multiple awards through it, but Voyage wasn’t made in a competition. It was made after months of hard work, with the intention of bringing people together.
“The ideation process starts with a simple question: ‘How can I create a game for people to hangout virtually and feel inspired during the pandemic?’” Zhuang said. “After that I developed a prototype which collects real-time geo-data from Google Map to simulate the entire Earth. After that, based on my intended experience I developed more features such as: an online server which allows people across the globe to meet each other in the game; the creation feature which allows players to plant flowers or leave messages in the world, etc.”
In Voyage, players can hang out in a multiplayer universe, plant trees and flowers and create signs to communicate with each other. The things they create in the journeys will exist in the virtual world forever.
“Personally I think the experience is unique because it simulates the real-world environment which people can easily relate to,” Zhuang said. “What also differentiates it from the traditional video games is that it has no predefined goals, and that’s exactly what I intend to do: to provide people with this virtual environment but not forcing them to do anything. So the players get to decide where to go and what to do, just like hanging out in real time.”
Zhuang’s Pathfinder Award is one he said he’s thrilled and honored to receive, especially from a company behind so many video game franchises he admires.
“I think although I am the selected winner for this award, I am definitely not the only ‘pathfinder’ worthy of this recognition,” Zhuang said. “Every student in the RPI GSAS program is making something original and special.”
Zhuang is grateful to his family for believing in his skills as a developer and hopes he can continue to make them proud.
“I sincerely hope I can one day be as inspiring to others as this award is to me.”
Correction 1/23/21 8:15 p.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Jingyu Zhuang’s last name.