Cool Class: The Art and Science of Virtual Worlds

Game 180N is focused on getting students to master virtual world planning and design.

grid of four photos of virtual worlds created in Game 180N, courtesy


In Mike Gallis’s class, Game 180N: The Art and Science of Virtual Worlds, students are tasked with creating a solid object—a cylinder, a ball, a box—that they will develop into an Avatar by adding facial features and color, and then place in a virtual world of their design. Gallis asks students to describe their character—what does it look like, what is its back story—and then develop and design the virtual environment in which they’re going to set their character using a variety of web-based virtual reality software package, to ultimately tell a complete story. Students work individually to create their own virtual worlds and then do the same in small groups.

“The idea is that they are going to pitch an idea for a virtual space to some corporate executive, and their group will have to be one step above the elevator pitch,” Gallis says.

As much as the course is focused on getting students to master virtual world planning and design, Gallis, as associate professor of physics at Penn State Schuylkill, wants them to recognize the importance of physics and the nature of underlying mechanics. Also, he says, many students who come to the class have not ever coded before, so they will be able to develop that skill. There are other students who major in cybersecurity, for example, whose technical abilities are strong. Gallis is interested in helping them become more creative and develop their storytelling skills.

In the years since he’s been teaching the class—which he co-created in 2018 with Jeffrey Stone, associate professor of information sciences and technology at the Lehigh Valley campus, and Nicole Andel, teaching professor of English at the Schuylkill campus—Gallis has learned that students’ creativity has no bounds.

“Last fall, everybody was in the horror genre—there was a lot of seeking revenge for some wrong done to my family, and oh, this is the ghost of so-and-so,” he says.

Last year, one student created a house as her object—“I audibly went ‘wow,’ we don’t usually have that level of sophistication in an object,” Gallis says—and the world she designed around the house told a story of a somewhat sad, lonely individual living in the middle of a dark forest. “The following semester, another student took this and adapted it for their individual project,” Gallis says. “They put some cat food bowls on the porch outside the house, added some dogs, turned the porch into a wraparound porch that went around the side of the house, and changed the environment to become a little sunnier.”

Gallis’s honors students have been even more creative. Recent projects include a detailed underwater world and a tropical aviary inside a glass enclosure, complete with birdsong and tiny, interactive placards describing various birds. 


Sample presentations

View some student individual and group project VR presentations at the links below, with the helpful guidelines:

  • To move around a VR scene while using a computer, use standard w a s d keys.
  • On mobile devices, looking through the screen will allow you to "look around"(as if you are viewing the scene through a magic window) so that pivoting in real space will allow you to look in different directions.
  • A touch should move you forward in the direction you are looking. This will also work with phone-based headsets. For handheld mobile devices, two fingers on the screen simultaneous will move you backwards.


An Interactive Aviary


Fairy Tale Gingerbread House

A Lonely House in the Woods (you can fly around the scene to get the cinematic impact) 

Cemetery (don't miss the maze in the back)