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UT entrepreneur develops winning energy video game

Charles Chin hopes energy use and production become as desirable to video game players as hurling birds at digital pigs or going to war in virtual worlds.

The University of Tennessee graduate student and entrepreneur recently won the Vol Court spring business pitch competition and is on track to develop and release a video game similar to the popular SimCity series, but focused on real-world energy production and consumption.

“I want to make a video game where a person builds a virtual city and populates it and has to keep track of energy usage, production, pollution — things people don’t really think about when it comes to energy — and use it to create an educational environment for the student,” Chin said.

The self-described gamer said the idea to use a video game to enhance education came naturally, but he hopes it finds a wider audience than just the classroom.

“I want it to have massive appeal outside the educational game world,” Chin, 25, said.

The doctoral student at the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education (CIRE), a joint project of UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said the idea for his game came from his academic leaders.

The energy game is Chin’s first attempt at game development.

“Our director wanted us to think about entrepreneurship ideas and business ideas, and I came up with an idea to use video games in a classroom setting for educational purposes,” Chin said.

As the spring Vol Court speaker series and pitch competition neared, the idea appeared to be a perfect fit.

“Part of our mission has been to encourage entrepreneurship,” said Benjamin Allen, a recruiter and graduate recruiter for CIRE. “Of course, a hot topic is energy and not only how to expand our current use of energy, but how to create a novel way to produce energy and distribute it.”

The biannual Vol Court competition is an effort of UT’s College of Business Administration’s Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. It offers workshop presentations on various entrepreneurial ideas and rewards budding entrepreneurs from the community for their efforts.

Second-place in the spring competition went to Anthony Smith, a junior majoring in public relations, who is developing a low-cost marketing package for small companies. Sarah Hurst, a doctoral student at the UT Institute of Agriculture, received honorable mention for a new Type 2 diabetes treatment.

Chin, who is from Oak Ridge, received $1,000 from the Vol Court competition, but he said the win gave him something much more valuable.

“The biggest thing that I think I got from the Vol Court is confirmation this is a good, viable idea from a business standpoint,” Chin said. “To see that other people see the value in this is nice. I’m glad that people can kind of accept it for what it is.”

Tom Graves, director of operations for the Anderson Center, said Chin’s idea stood out from the other crop of presenters.

“This (competition) gives people a chance to vindicate an idea,” he said.

In addition to his cash prize, Chin also is receiving professional services such as legal and accounting services, as well as incubator space in which to develop his idea.

“Nobody has struck it rich yet, but we’ve had a number of businesses come out of this” competition, Graves said.

Chin said he plans to flesh out the game more before he seeks additional funding.

“I’ve always thought about making video games because I enjoy them so much, but I never had an idea I thought I could take forward as much as this one,” he said.

He said video games can be fun and popular while remaining educational. He cited Assassin’s Creed, a historical fiction-based game, as an example.

“You’re an assassin in Renaissance Italy and because you’re an assassin you end up learning real-world facts while you’re playing,” he said.

In his game, he hopes to create a realistic virtual environment that will capture the attention of even those who have no prior knowledge of energy production and use.

“If a person knows nothing about energy and if they come in and learn the game mechanics, they should (eventually) have a working understanding of how energy production works,” Chin said.

But will there be a linux version?

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