When Jason Bowey thinks about the upcoming Fall Convocation ceremonies hosted by the University of Saskatchewan (USask), he experiences mixed emotions.
Bowey will receive his PhD in computer science in November after studying in USask’s College of Arts and Science for years.
“It is a great relief to finally be done, but it is also bittersweet because I truly enjoyed my time in the program,” he said.
Before beginning his doctoral degree, Bowey—who grew up in Unity, Sask.—obtained his Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in computer science at USask in 2014. After completing his undergraduate studies, he became a master’s student in the Department of Computer Science before transferring to the PhD program a couple of years later.
“The reason I love computer science so much is that it is such a great blend of right- and left-brain thinking,” he said. “It is a precise and meticulous discipline, but it also has lots of room for creativity and abstract thinking, which I love.”
A high-achieving student, Bowey was awarded the USask Dean’s Scholarship as a doctoral candidate. The intent of the scholarship is to attract and recruit high-calibre students to the university. At the PhD level, it provides $22,000, plus tuition, for three years.
One of the things Bowey enjoyed most about his time as a graduate student was the opportunity to conduct research and explore his ideas and interests. His PhD dissertation was titled “Understanding Congruence between Player and Character Beliefs in Digital Games,” and his work was supervised by Department of Computer Science faculty member Dr. Regan Mandryk (PhD).
Bowey’s research focused on understanding the psychological relationship between a human player and the protagonist—or avatar—they control in a game. A significant portion of his dissertation looked at the topic from the perspective of sexist beliefs; for example, if the character says or does something sexist, how does that affect the player’s connection to the character, and how is that relationship mediated by the player’s own personal beliefs?
“In addition to these kinds of questions, I also looked at how game designers could use text-based interfaces for early prototyping of game narratives, and the psychological mechanisms of dialogue choices in video games,” Bowey said.
“I have always loved video games, and being able to study that area was the perfect balance of technical skill and creativity I mentioned earlier. I feel that I brought a unique mix of skills to the field: I had the technical skills from my BSc, but I also brought a love of storytelling and writing, which allowed me to study research questions that many other researchers wouldn’t be able to and/or weren’t interested in studying.”
In addition to serving as Bowey’s graduate supervisor, Mandryk hired him to work in The Interaction Lab, a research collective in the Department of Computer Science. Bowey began working as a programmer in the lab after completing his BSc degree, with a focus on building games for graduate students to use in their research.
“A large part of this work was building gamified versions of traditional psychological tasks to see if we could have the same efficacy as the traditional tasks but improve the enjoyment of participants,” he said. “Once I was a graduate student I primarily focused on my own research, but I did collaborate with colleagues on several research projects during this time.”
Outside of his research and work with The Interaction Lab, Bowey was a big supporter of outreach initiatives in the Department of Computer Science, such as teaching bootcamps that run annually in partnership with the Saskatoon Industry-Education Council (SIEC). The bootcamps offer high school students an opportunity to learn about the basics of game development and professional-level game development tools prior to graduating from Grade 12, to help determine if a career in game development or computer science may be right for them. The students take part in eight three-hour sessions over a period of eight weeks and, by the end, each produces a unique 2D video game.
“I originally got involved in the bootcamps because of other outreach work I had done with the computer science department helping to organize local Game Jam events, workshops at the Digitized outreach program every spring and robotics demos at a science fair sponsored by the Saskatoon Tribal Council for a couple years,” Bowey said. “The thing I enjoy most about them is to be able to share what I do with other people and show them what a career path in tech could look like.”
As he worked toward his PhD, Bowey also served as a sessional lecturer in the department, mainly teaching two undergraduate game courses: CMPT 306 and CMPT 406. In December 2020, he also took on a new role at the Recording Arts Institute of Saskatoon (RAIS) teaching the basics of game art and design.
Now that Bowey’s PhD is complete, he plans to stay in Saskatoon and help build the local game development industry. He will continue working at RAIS and with the SIEC and similar organizations to promote careers in the technology sector and to encourage local game designers to stay and grow the sector in Saskatchewan.
He also has some advice for new USask students: take as many diverse courses as possible. Classes from the sciences, social sciences, humanities and fine arts all have something unique to offer.
“It is really so important to be exposed to other disciplines because no matter what you do in the future, you are going to need a wide range of experiences that you can’t get from a single course,” he said. “Scientists need to study science, but if you can’t write up your research it will never get published.”
This fall, 926 students are expected to graduate from USask with 939 degrees, diplomas and certificates. These graduates join a century-old community of close to 165,000 alumni worldwide whose contributions are helping to shape our world. Due to the pandemic, in-person ceremonies will not be held. Instead, there are a variety of opportunities to celebrate. Learn more about the celebrations at students.usask.ca/usaskclassof2021.