From Computational Biologist to Lowcountry Video Game Designer

Staff Report From Savannah CEO

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Led by the allure of the Lowcountry and a profound love of game design, Brian Canada, Ph.D., is joining an elite group of emerging video game designers as part of PAX Rising in conjunction with PAX South 2016.
Penny Arcade Expo South 2016 is one of a series of gaming festivals hosted annually throughout the world. This year’s event will draw literally thousands of video game developers, publishers, gamers, and the curious to San Antonio for three days of game-playing, forums, and demonstrations beginning Jan. 29.
Dr. Canada could never have conceived of such an honor when he accepted a faculty position at the University of South Carolina Beaufort just a few years ago. After earning a doctorate in Bioinformatics & Genomics at Penn State University in late 2010, he ventured south, relocating to the Lowcountry of South Carolina and accepting a position as Assistant Professor of Computational Science at USCB.  It was the process of relocating to the Lowcountry that launched him on a personal journey to professor and video game designer.  
As he was preparing to leave Pennsylvania, Dr. Canada came across a satirical United States map of supernatural fears broken down by state. While several states shared generic terrors such as zombies, spiders, and aliens, standing out boldly for South Carolina was a peculiar label: “Boo Hag.” After digging deeper into the lore of the Boo Hag and other legendary folk tales of South Carolina, Dr. Canada found himself a new hobby: exploring local Gullah culture and the South’s preoccupation with paranormal haints, hexes, and hags.
Meanwhile, as part of his Computational Science teaching duties, Dr. Canada was tapped to teach USCB’s Java programming course sequence. Coding video games turned out to be an ideal way to generate excitement about Java in the classroom. In the process of preparing lessons, he, too, got caught up in the excitement, and ultimately became hooked on game design and programming.
Since joining USCB, Dr. Canada has been exploring the use of games as a mechanism for crowdsourcing the labeling of biomedical images, but he realized such games often lacked the engaging qualities that motivate players to keep coming back for more. His subsequent drive to develop an entertaining video game, combined with his fascination with the alluring folklore and history of the South Carolina Lowcountry, led to the genesis of Bugs ’N Boo Hags, a “retro” video game inspired by the arcade games of the 1980s.
The player, as the main character, Sheriff McCleary, must defend the homes of Beaufort residents from invasion by that most dreaded of evil spirits, the Boo Hag, who is said to have the power to drain a sleeping person's life force to the point of paralysis—or even death.

Conventional weapons won't work—instead, the player’s arsenal consists of mojo bags, corn brooms, salt shakers, grits, and "haint blue" paint. The Boo Hag knows the sheriff is coming and has recruited an army of frightful creatures to deter his pursuit. As the game progresses, the question emerges: “Will I be able to save the people of Beaufort or will the Boo Hag ride them to death?”
Dr. Canada has worked to infuse the game with genuine Lowcountry authenticity. The game opens with a pixelated “sprite” of Mayor Billy Keyserling imploring the sheriff to save the town. With Spanish moss to climb, and palmetto bugs, fire ants, and mosquitos to evade, Bugs ’N Boo Hags has Beaufort’s stamp all over it.  (A kazoo is even included as a bonus item in honor of Beaufort’s own Kazoobie Kazoos factory, and the houses you must defend are all modeled after designs by Allison Ramsey Architects.)
“Little did I know that coming to the Lowcountry would be so life-changing,” Dr. Canada says. “It’s a special place that makes you never want to leave. Plus, I have finally found a way to blend academic scholarship with creativity, benefitting both my personal creative drive and my students’ programming interests.”
Dr. Canada’s interest in Gullah culture has also led to his being recruited by Penn Center to revamp the website for the non-profit facility that serves as the center of native history and culture on St. Helena Island. Dr. Canada saw this as the perfect opportunity to supplement his students’ technical education with an appreciation for the Lowcountry region, and he is now leading a team of Computational Science students in the design and development of the new site.
“It’s been amazing to see how most everything in Beaufort ends up being connected in one way or another, no matter what your background or where you came from,” he adds. “The region is brimming with opportunities for interdisciplinary learning everywhere.”
Matching Dr. Canada’s desire to spur collaborative research among the sciences and liberal arts, the University of South Carolina’s Center for Digital Humanities has endorsed Bugs ’N Boo Hags. Academicians at the center have expressed interest in working with Dr. Canada to develop another, more expansive video game inspired by Gullah folklore, with art design by renowned Lowcountry artist Amiri Farris, one of Dr. Canada’s colleagues in higher education.  
“I can’t wait to share the little gem that is Beaufort with the thousands of gamers who will be attending PAX South later this month,” Dr. Canada says. “Perhaps they too will get hooked on the mystique and beauty of the Lowcountry, even if it’s pixelated.”