UNM Students Learn Game Development through Sandia Internships

By Mary Beth King, UNM News Service

University of New Mexico

June 24, 2019 – Recent University of New Mexico graduates Alex Booher and Alexandra Valdez came from different academic areas to the Film & Digital Arts department, but both landed at Sandia National Laboratories where their skills in game development went far beyond gaming for entertainment.

The Sandia internships are under the guidance of Jon Whetzel and Nathan Fabian. Fabian is a Senior Member of the Sandia technical staff, Whetzel is a Principal Member of the Sandia technical staff, and both are adjunct professors at UNM co-teaching game development.

“Sandia is looking for students with game development skills. The need is becoming greater and greater because we’re doing more and more in this area,” Whetzel said.

Video gaming is helping Sandia’s mission of national security, Whetzel said. Using and applying gaming technology has spread throughout many of the labs’ departments.

“As games get more complex, we can see correlates between the game world and the real world. It creates a rich environment and data sets to test hypotheses about how groups are formed and how they react to changes in the environment, economic market disruptions, tribes or groups in conflict and how they resolve those conflicts, and decision-making on policies that impact large populations. It’s a proxy for the real world,” Whetzel explained.

Whetzel said Valdez and Booher brought not only the technical skills Sandia needed, but also “more of the humanities and artistic talents to better develop the applications we’re creating. The human element is so key.”

“I pursued film for about a year before jumping into computer programming after finding a strong interest in it while taking a required introductory Computer Science course for the program. Since Film & Digital Arts is an interdisciplinary program, it was easy to transition to a game development focus and pursue a minor in Computer Science,” Booher said. “I met Jon at his game development course… I had been working on a small game engine with a couple of friends, and I showed it to Jon during his office hours to see what he thought. He said I’d make a good fit at Sandia since a big portion of what’s worked on in his division is ‘Serious Games’ and simulation. After that, we set up the internship.”

“I began at UNM as a Studio Art major in fall of 2010 who was always interested in digital art but wasn’t sure how to pursue it. I ended up taking a couple years off school to work and figure out what I wanted to do, when I heard about Film & Digital Arts by word of mouth some time in 2013. I was drawn to the program because it offered classes in game development and 3D production and was hooked ever since,” Valdez said.

“I’ve learned more than I ever thought possible. When I first entered the program, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do after school, but that it would be somewhere in this realm. Film & Digital Arts introduced me to programming, 3D production, storytelling, VFX, and even Virtual Reality development. For my senior capstone project, we made a fully functional video game – a feat I never imagined I would accomplish or be a part of,” she added.

As part of the Sandia internship, Valdez worked as the lead artist on SIGNAL, a new online experimental war game developed in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory through the Project on Nuclear Gaming. She designed and created the visual assets used in the game and also helped make minor changes to the code base.

The outlook for careers in the field of game development is expanding, with many student interns going into the entertainment field but many find their skills are highly sought by the National Labs, Apple, Google, and many other organizations.

Booher and Valdez have their Film & Digital Arts studies and Sandia internships on their résumés and are now looking to their career futures.