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Academy Alum’s Riverbed Makes a Splash

Mary Wharmby, Academy of Art University School of Web Design & New Media alumna, brought her passion and concern for environmental and social issues to the gaming world. With an academic focus on user experience and interaction design, her Master’s thesis was a game called Riverbed, and it’s making a splash.

Design by Mary Wharmby
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Mary’s game, Riverbed, was featured in November 2011 at the Longwood Art Gallery @ Hostos, in New York, during the “Toys and Games with a Twist” exhibit. The exhibit is focused on showcasing toys and games as works of art and social commentary.

Interested in the disconcerting trends surrounding fresh water as a resource, Mary describes her game, saying, “the narrative core of the project is a fictional murder-mystery, set in a land devastated by water scarcity. Players assume the role of the son of the victim. As he endeavors to solve the murder of his father, a prominent environmentalist, the protagonist becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to steal massive amounts of water. The setting, history and character archetypes are based on real-world cases like the Aral Sea, Ganges and Colorado Rivers. The Riverbed visually and physically (through story and gameplay) illustrates the incredible power of water to transform landscapes, ideas and lives.”

Design by Mary Wharmby
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Riverbed's interactivity captures Mary’s goal of providing a fun way to explore topics surrounding water usage that she feels are important for people to be aware of. “Players navigate and explore the game-world at their own pace,” she says. “I decided that making a game about water use would be a great way to enable players to become immersed in the complex topics I wanted to present. Concepts like multi-state water rights, upstream/downstream power dynamics, tragedy of the commons, and many more are explored in a fun and engaging way.”

Design by Mary Wharmby
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Believing that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it, Mary became a design instructor for the Academy of Art University. She also credits Academy of Art University staff regarding the time she spent as a student, saying, “I had a lot of great instructors at Academy of Art. It’s hard to name a single person but if I had to, I think it would be Kathleen Watson. Kathleen taught me the user centered design process. That methodology has really changed the way I approach projects and made me a much stronger designer.”

Mary’s advice for up-and-coming game designers is to “never be satisfied with the first good idea you have. Keep exploring and iterating and chances are you'll come up with something even better.”

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