For many teens, playing video games is their No. 1 extracurricular activity. Yet it’s a pastime that’s unlikely to get listed on a college application … or is it? According to the Entertainment Software Association, Americans spent $7 billion on computer and video games in 2005—a take that rivals the annual Hollywood box office. Just as a kid might dream of studying filmmaking, music or theater, collegebound teenagers can now pursue a career designing and developing the very games that make up their favorite hobby.
In fact, the real difficulty for students who want a higher education in games might be deciding where to go. Dozens of technical schools and community colleges around the country offer certificate programs in computer game programming and development. Art schools cater to those interested in graphics and animation. Universities like Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech have offered master’s degrees in the field for a number of years, and students can pursue Ph.D.’s in the study of digital media. The DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash., accredited in 2002, devotes itself to training students for the video game industry.
Now, traditional four-year colleges are jumping on the bandwagon by adding bachelor’s degrees in computer game design to their course catalogues. This fall, the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Southern California began accepting students into their new programs. The University of Denver started its undergraduate program in fall 2005. And Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which offers a minor in game studies, is moving toward approving an undergraduate major in game and simulation arts and sciences.
These programs aim to prepare students for jobs in the game industry but also to give them a broad education. Graduates come out knowing how to code and with an appreciation of the artistic elements involved. “The difference is that they’re whole-brain educated,” says Scott Leutenegger, professor of computer science and director of the Game Development Program at the University of Denver. “They can do the creative art-and-design side, and they have the technical depth, which we have not watered down as computer scientists.”
It appears that many students are finding that left-brain/right-brain combination appealing. Though brand new, the programs are already attracting lots of interest. And that interest, says Leutenegger, comes none too soon. Nationally, student enrollments in computer science have dropped 70 percent over the past six years. The crash followed the bursting of the dot-com bubble and media reports about the outsourcing of high-tech jobs. “Parents and kids see computer science as a terrible career to go into,” he says.
But the IT industry is recovering, and the game industry in particular is expected to double in the next two years, meaning that available jobs will soon outnumber the qualified people to fill them. “This is going to be a huge problem for the entire IT industry starting in about two years, and certainly in three or four years,” Leutenegger says. In that context, using computer games to get kids interested in computer science is almost a no-brainer.
It’s Not All Fun and Games
The emphasis on games, however, isn’t just a gimmick to reel students into computer science departments. Games are the subject of serious research—in terms of their architecture, their potential applications and their cultural impact. For example, Michael Mateas, who was recruited from Georgia Tech to help build the computer game design major at UC Santa Cruz, developed a groundbreaking interactive drama called “Façade.” In the game, the player pays a visit to a couple that’s having marital problems, and the characters react in real time to whatever the player says or does. “Part of the point of this project was to offer a proof of concept that other forms of game play based purely on social interaction and story are possible,” Mateas says. He and his collaborator, Andrew Stern, had to create new programming languages and artificial intelligence techniques to make the game possible.
Teenagers aren’t the only gamers: The military uses games to train soldiers, governments use them to simulate disaster scenarios and business schools use them to teach economics. The modern world of gaming grew out of the idea of using simulations as a way to generate knowledge, Mateas says, where you build an artificial system, see what it does and study it as if it were a natural system. “Games are like simulations made playable,” he says.
Leutenegger sees serious or humane games like this eclipsing entertainment-based games within five years. Games have applications in medicine, where they can be used to distract burn victims from their pain or to help patients recover cognitively after a brain injury. Educational games teach children subjects like reading, math and geography and can even create social awareness. A group of students at the University of Denver created a game called “Squeezed,” which recently won a competition run by MTV. The goal of the game is to raise empathy for the issues faced by migrant farm workers.
Parents, who are often skeptical when they first hear about these degree programs, usually come to understand what they’re all about, Leutenegger says. He’s met with about a hundred prospective students and their parents, he says, and “only one of them slammed his fist down on the table and said ‘No games!’…The majority of them seem to get it—that this is a hard technology degree.”
In fact, the requirements for the computer game design majors are often tougher than those for a traditional computer science degree. At the University of Denver, students can pursue either a B.A. or a B.S. Students in the B.S. program complete all the requirements for the computer science major, a minor in mathematics and a minor in art or digital media studies. The B.A. students must double major in game development and either studio art, digital media studies or electronic media arts design.
Some universities offer more of a hybrid program, equally balanced between engineering and art, and some are pure design degrees. At UC Santa Cruz, they decided to weight the course load to the technical side, so students who ultimately don’t pursue jobs in the industry will still have a solid computer science background, says associate professor James Whitehead, who proposed the new major and ushered it through the approval process. In addition to classes in computer science and engineering, UC Santa Cruz students choose electives in art, film, music, theater and economics. In all, 10 departments are involved in the major. “Santa Cruz has a long history of being an interdisciplinary campus,” Mateas says, “and game design and development is inherently interdisciplinary.”
An important component of all the programs is to give students hands-on experience developing games. At USC, students take a year-long advanced game projects class, where each student proposes a game, the class votes on five they want to work on and they split into teams to build them. At the end of the first semester, the students demonstrate the games for industry representatives and get feedback on which ones to keep working on in the spring.
The students this fall proposed a diverse range of projects, says Michael Zyda, director of USC’s GamePipe Laboratory, including a music-based game called “Bushida Beat” and another that’s a takeoff of the movie “March of the Penguins.” It’s a first-person shooter game where the birds hurl snowballs at one another.
By working in teams, the students “learn to collaborate in cross-disciplinary groups and to build a large piece of software,” Zyda says, “and they’re basically industry-ready.” Zyda himself has real-world experience in game development; while at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., he and his colleagues created a popular game called America’s Army, which the U.S. military uses as a recruiting tool.
In the commercial game industry, a design team can involve more than 100 people, each one a specialist responsible for a small part of the overall project. But ideally, these teams should have people who are more well-rounded, Mateas says. “Horror stories have been told to me about completely non-coding designers who, when proposing a game mechanic, have no concept of what’s an easy thing to do and what would be a 10-year research effort to figure out how to code up,” he says. “If you really don’t know anything about programming, then you don’t know where those edges are.” Schools like UC Santa Cruz are trying to educate people to become the kind of artist-programmers who can walk those edges without falling in.
The college programs receive support from companies such as Microsoft, Electronic Arts and Motorola, who know that the students they help nurture now may become employees in the near future. But even if graduates don’t go into the game industry, “the skills are directly transferable to any technology career,” Leutenegger says. “A lot of people work in the game industry for a few years, and then they switch and go work for Oracle, Cisco, Microsoft— whatever—because the skills they have are the ones that computer science graduates traditionally have also.”
In fact, they might even be considered the cream of the crop. Zyda says he received a query from the federal government about identifying students interested in getting advanced degrees in computer security. The government was unhappy with the quality of students with traditional computer science degrees and recognized that experience in game design resulted in stronger programmers. “If they’re not strong programmers, they change majors,” Zyda notes. “They can switch to something easier, like electrical engineering.”
Corinna Wu is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.