SALT LAKE CITY — Outside, the room is hot, the crowd is buzzing and the DJ is bumping.
But inside 6-year-old Tarrah’s head, the sweet tones of classical music are piping through her ears as she conducts a school of fish around an underwater shipwreck.
"It's like you're really holding them!" said Tarrah, who was wearing a virtual reality headset. "I'm on a hill right now! I’m putting blowfish on my head!"
For six years, the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering program has been showcasing its student-designed games twice a year. But on Friday, for the first time, the students invited the public to test their games and give feedback.
Academic program manager Corinne Lewis said students in the program have worked hard to overcome the stereotype that video games are only meant for entertainment.
“We know that games can be so much more than that,” she said.
The 35 games and apps showcased at the event ranged from classic high-octane shooting games to health and educational apps.
The program is now the No. 1 ranked undergraduate and No. 3 ranked graduate video game design program in the U.S., according to the Princeton Review.
Lewis said parents touring the school with their high schoolers used to be more skeptical about the value of video games.
"In the past two years, that mindset has changed," she said. "We've seen more parents who were gamers themselves.”
The underwater virtual reality game developed by second-year graduate student Kun Cheng, for example, is the result of a collaboration with colleagues at the dance school and medical school.
They wondered whether he could design a game that would be comforting to children with autism and help them learn spatial reasoning.
Cheng designed a virtual reality game where players use the headset and controls to conduct schools of fish, grab and throw sharks, and teleport themselves to the top of an underwater arch or the safety of a cave.
Cheng and his fellow students call the game ACE (Autism Choreographic Experience). They hope to conduct a study to see if the game helps children with autism.
"We think about our entire lives as work," said Roger Altizer, director and founder of The GApp Lab, a group of about three dozen students at the U. who focus specifically on making medical and educational video games and apps. "We think about medicine, it's work. We think about physical therapy, it's work. But when we play, we heal faster and learn more."
Other creations of the lab include Mole ID, an app that allows patients to crowdsource expert opinions on suspicious moles, which gives dermatologists reach into rural areas.
Another app called ARBI (Augmented Reality Body Image), allows patients to virtually pinch and prod an avatar into what they think their body looks like. It’s meant to help patients with body dysmorphia.
Other popular games at the event included a virtual reality version of an "escape room” where players must use clues to get out of a locked room; a two-player virtual version of hide-and-seek; and a 3-D art simulator.
Lewis said many of the students work closely with colleagues in the business school and medical school to develop their games. Graduate students often go on to become full-time game developers with dreams of starting their own studios, she said.
Sean Keanaaina, a former U. student who now works at EA in Salt Lake City, said his final project started as an augmented reality game and became a game about Hawaiian culture and mythology.
"You're chasing the fun," said Keanaaina, who is Hawaiian. "You're chasing the thing that drives and motivates payers. Games can be a form of expression.”
As for Tarrah, she gave Cheng's game two thumbs up.
"I like how it was programmed," Tarrah said, confidently. "I like how they made it so we can touch blowfish and also you can touch other animals."
Tarrah's father, Joseph Spence, a programmer, said his children have gotten interested in coding through exposure to his job.
"People approach programming like it's a logical activity, but really, at the higher levels, it's not," Spence said. "It's actually really artistic. There are multiple ways to fix a problem. The more creative and artistic a person is, the more of a genius programmer they are."