USC Games Expo 2023 Takes Flight: From “Birds Aren’t Real” to Immersive Adventures

| May 18, 2023

Sixty student games featured in the annual carnival-like event, held in person for the first time since 2019

USC Games Expo 2023

USC Games Expo 2023

In 2017, a Gen-Z college dropout crafted a satirical conspiracy theory known as “Birds Aren’t Real.” Its proponents assert that birds are, in fact, U.S. government-operated drones designed to surveil American citizens. 

The movement’s creator intended it as a farcical means of combating misinformation, given the ease with which online conspiracy theories can sway people. Although hundreds of thousands of people have since joined the movement, the notion of birds as spy drones still seems more like something out of a movie or video game.

Thanks to the leading collegiate game design program in North America, USC Games, “Birds Aren’t Real” and numerous other innovative games are taking flight. The 2023 USC Games Expo, which was entirely live this year, returned to action in person for the first time since 2019. 

The seventh annual event took place on May 10th at the USC School of Cinematic Arts complex and provided attendees with a carnival-like experience, complete with food, a live Alice in Wonderland-themed mini golf course, and 60 student games on display. USC Games is a joint collaboration program between the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Thomas Lord Department of Computer Science and the USC School of Cinematic Arts Interactive Media & Games Division.

Coco Zhang, a USC Viterbi senior computer science games major, is the creative director of the game “Birds Aren’t Real,” spearheading the project from conception to completion with a team of students as part of the USC Games’ Advanced Games Projects (AGP) capstone class.

Coco Zhang USC Games Expo

Coco Zhang, a USC Viterbi Computer Science student in the USC Games program

“Birds Aren’t Real’ is a 3D sandbox game with a comedic twist,” Zhang explained. “Based on the real-life satirical conspiracy theory, you play as a government surveillance pigeon drone using sneaky maneuvers and creative thinking to manipulate the town’s citizens trying to prevent them from revealing your secret government operation.”

For Jim Huntley, head of marketing for the USC Games program and USC associate professor of cinematic arts, the event served as the ideal showcase for USC’s “fantastic student body.”

“We want industry professionals to be able to take a look at what these students can do as internship holders or employees,” Huntley said. “We also want to show prospective students who maybe hadn’t considered a career in the games industry, this is what you can learn in our program, and having a career in the games industry is something that is viable from a career perspective.”

HoYoverse, the worldwide interactive entertainment brand recognized for creating the popular games Genshin Impact, Honkai Impact 3rd, and Tears of Themis, sponsored this year’s expo. IGN streamed this year’s expo online for those who couldn’t make the event in person.  The festivities commenced with a showcase presentation at The Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre, where 10 Advanced Game Projects (AGPs) were chosen to display their work after participating in a yearlong creative process under the guidance of USC faculty and gaming industry experts. The event’s opening remarks were delivered by Matt Booty, head of Xbox Games Studios, in front of a captivated audience.

“Our industry needs new voices, it needs more voices, diverse voices, young voices. It needs new ideas,” Booty told attendees. “It is so encouraging and exciting to see the talent that is out there that is ready to come into our industry.”

From a virtual reality game that allows users to create their own city, to an immersive detective puzzle adventure, this year’s games included a wide variety of creative experiences. According to Zhang, creative director of “Birds Aren’t Real,” a group of up to 42 students from various disciplines at USC collaborated in the development of the game, each assigned distinct responsibilities like crafting music, designing artwork, coding, and enhancing the user experience. Zhang emphasizes the immense dedication of her team and believes they deserve recognition.

 “The expo serves as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on all of our accomplishments,” said Zhang. “I’m just so proud of all the hard work of my team members.”

 Zhang, a student in the Progressive Degree Program (PDP), is pursuing a double major in Middle Eastern studies. PDP provides students with the opportunity to simultaneously earn credits towards a master’s degree while working towards a bachelor’s degree. She is scheduled to complete her master’s degree next spring. Zhang says her work on the “Birds Aren’t Real” project led her to discover her passion for the gaming industry, which she hopes to pursue as a career.

 “Being a USC Viterbi CS Games student has given me a more well-rounded technical experience in the game development process,” Zhang explained. “This process has solidified that I would like to continue working in the gaming industry. The kind of game I would want to work on would be a smaller, indie game.”

 The online games featured in this year’s expo are all available to download here.


Published on May 18th, 2023

Last updated on May 16th, 2024

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