Computer Science Faculty, Students Stay Social through Online Games

Apr 22, 2020

by Greg Williams
Publications Editor

Across the nation, the challenge of adjusting to a stay-at-home lifestyle has led many people to dust off low-tech pastimes such as board games, card games, and jigsaw puzzles. Faculty members and students in Florida Southern’s computer science department can vouch for the social benefits of low-tech diversions, having gathered every Friday for the past couple of years to take part in “board game lunches.”

Board game group
Every Friday for the past several years, computer science students and faculty have met in the department's lounge for a casual "board game lunch."
Virtual drawing
To maintain the weekly get-togethers, students and faculty have turned to online games such as Skribbl, which closely resembles the board game Pictionary.

When FSC transitioned to remote learning in March 2020, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dr. Christian Roberson and others in the department started looking for ways to maintain the connections formed during their face-to-face game fests. In short order, they found a few digital alternatives to the dozens of board games stored in Dr. Roberson’s office.

“For some reason, students seem to get a kick out of beating their professors in a board game,” said Dr. Matthew Eicholtz, assistant professor of computer science. “And we all enjoy beating our department chair.”

Said Dr. Roberson (the department chair): “Now we’re playing online, with a Zoom session open to be able to comment to one another. We’ve also created virtual breakout rooms for smaller groups to discuss the game without the other team present. In some ways, it’s actually easier; in person, you would have to go to your own corners or talk quietly.”

With the introduction of remote learning, the department launched yet another online gaming option in the form of a dedicated Minecraft server, providing an exclusive outlet for computer science students to relax, explore, be creative, and stay social with one another. 

Celeste Rosendale, a computer science major with a concentration in web and cloud development, works with Dr. Roberson as the server’s main administrator from her home in Columbus, Ga.

Rosendale describes Minecraft as “a sandbox game, where you have the creative freedom to create whatever you want.” 

Minecraft scene
Computer science students built a large, 3-dimensional version of Florida Southern's familiar cornerstone logo as part of their virtual world in Minecraft.

User-made modifications, or mods, give players extra coding to create their own gameplay elements and structures — sometimes with complex mechanics — in order to transform their virtual world.

For example, FSC’s computer science students collaborated to create a towering version of the College’s cornerstone logo, located near the game’s log-in area. One player even created his own large underground base to evade destructive monsters that roam the digital landscape.

“There’s a survival element to it, but the core of Minecraft is the creative side,” Rosendale said. “The server has brought people closer together. Some students have come out of their shells.”

Jeffrey Bindeman of Clearwater, who is pursuing a double major in applied math and computer science, is taking advantage of both the Minecraft server and the weekly game-playing sessions. He appreciates the close relationships that have developed between computer science students and their professors. “It’s part of the major appeal of Florida Southern,” he said, adding that at least one faculty member — and sometimes all three — are active players in the lunchtime get-togethers. “That student/professor wall just disappears and we’re just a group of friends playing games.”

These opportunities to form connections are more than just fun and games, according to student Emma Stoverink of St. Louis, Mo., a computer science major with a minor in communication. She finds the friendly bonds within the computer science department to be especially helpful considering the collaborative nature of much of their academic work. 

“In almost every computer science class I’ve taken, there has been a group project,” Stoverink said, adding that the sense of community “makes working on these projects a great experience for everyone. Everyone seems to support and encourage each other.”

Dr. Eicholtz, who teaches artificial intelligence (AI), sees a definite connection between some of the games they play (“practicing logical thinking and decision-making skills”) and the types of problems that can be solved through the use of computers. “From a teaching standpoint, some games are too complex to implement in the classroom,” he acknowledged, “but in one course this semester, students learned to program AI players for simpler games like Connect 4.” 

These days, however, the lunchtime game sessions are mainly about maintaining existing bonds and establishing a sense of normalcy, Dr. Eicholtz said. 

“In this current environment, where we’re not interacting with many people face-to-face, it’s nice to connect with people in a fun activity.”

Virtual full
Students and faculty members alike are continuing to meet online for the computer science department's weekly game-playing lunches. They use Zoom as a virtual chat room in tandem with online games such as Skribbl, in which the players try to guess what others have drawn.