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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 March 22 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Game On

C  O  V  E  R     S  T  O  R Y

Game On

Computer Gaming Morphs from Just Fun
Into a Serious Academic Pursuit

By Paul Bradley

Let’s face it — computer gamers get a bad rap.

They’re derided as long-haired, slack-jawed dweebs who waste altogether too much time and brainpower locked inside dark rooms staring at computer screens or rubbing their thumbs raw in front of “Halo” or “Gears of War.”

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But as the computer and video game industry has evolved from solo individuals pecking away at keyboards to an experience for groups and families who can send cartoon avatars soaring through three-dimensional virtual cities, that stereotype is melting away.

So, too, is the tendency of computer science educators to dismiss video-game courses as unworthy of serious academic pursuit.

The number of schools that now offer video- and computer-gaming courses is exploding. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 254 colleges and universities in 37 states and the District of Columbia now offer courses and degrees in computer and video game design, programming and art. Between 2008 and 2009, the number of colleges with such programs jumped by 27 percent. Many of the schools are concentrated California, New York, Texas and North Carolina.

“Video games are not only the fastest-growing entertainment medium, they are also increasingly used in education and business for professional training and e-learning,” Rich Taylor, ESA’s senior vice-president for communications, said in a press release announcing the findings. “These new college programs underscore the importance of the video games industry, which is well-poised to create additional employment and professional opportunities in the coming years.”

The ESA has a trove of statistics to back up its claim. According to the group’s research, more Americans are playing video and computer games then ever before. The group says that 68 percent of American households now play video games, and 60 percent of American households now have a video game console. Even in a recession, it seems, families are willing to shell out $300 for an XBox.

Computer and video games are also being used for more serious undertakings than designing the next “Guitar Hero.”

A study conducted in 2008 by KRC Research found that 70 percent of major employers use interactive software, including games, to train employees. The software can be used for virtual training in a variety of fields, including medicine, mechanics and transportation.

The increased use of computer and video games provides a rare bright spot in a dark economic picture. At a time when many students are graduating into a withered job market, the industry is growing; Computer and video game software sales reached $22 billion in 2008. Computer and video games companies directly or indirectly employ more than 80,000 people, according to the ESA.

Those kinds of numbers have commanded the attention of community colleges charged with devising academic and workforce development programs that can lead to robust employment opportunities. Dozens of two-year institutions are among the colleges offering degree or certificate programs in video and computer gaming.

Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina — located near that state’s renowned Research Triangle — was at the forefront of the movement. In 2005, CPCC became the first college of any kind in the nation to offer a state-approved degree program in simulation and game development. Computer scientist Farhad Javidi has been with the program since its inception and now directs the college’s Simulation and Game Development Center.

“Trying to establish the program was difficult,” he said. “It took three years. We had no model to go on. We had to create 29 new courses, and we recently added 11 more. As soon as the courses are offered, they fill up.”

Like other community colleges, CPCC’s simulation and game development curriculum is aimed at more than game enthusiasts. It’s intended to provide a broad background in simulation and game development with practical applications in creative arts, visual arts, audio/video technology, creative writing, modeling, design, programming and management. Students receive hands-on training in design, 3D modeling, software engineering, database administration and programming for the purpose of creating simulations and games.

Graduates can get jobs as designers, artists, animators, programmers, database administrators, testers, quality assurance analysts, engineers and administrators in the entertainment industry, the health care industry, engineering, forensics, education, NASA and other government agencies. Starting pay for a software developer can be as much as $55,000 a year; and those with five years experience can earn up to $90,000.

“People thought it was funny that we were offering a program in video game development,” Javidi said. “But the very same technology is used in simulations like forensics and aviation. It’s a very broad field.”

Demanding Academics

But before prospective students drop their gamepads and hit the books, they should know that the programs are academically demanding, with heavy doses of math and science. Indeed, some of the video and computer game programs were started to offset declines in traditional computer science courses of study and include similar curricula.

Computer types even have to master English. Even the most brilliant software engineer might have trouble communicating in plain language. Writing skills have become essential to the successful game designer. Central Piedmont offers an English course entitled “Writing for Games” which typically is filled to capacity.

Still, the allure of the video and computer game programs remains strong, especially for students who have grown up playing games. Playing, however, is a lot different than designing the nuts and bolts of the games.

“There is a giant difference between playing a video game and building one,” said Garry M. Gaber, assistant director of the Game Development Institute at Austin Community College is Texas. “You have to know how to use Microsoft Word. You need to use Excel. We don’t teach students to play, we teach them to build.”

Austin’s GDI opened its doors in 2008 with an enrollment of 100 students after several years during which game development was offered only as a continuing education program. Housed at ACC’s Northridge Campus, the institute was created in response to demand from the local gaming industry looking for skilled workers, Gaber said. There are now 280 students enrolled.

“When we opened, our classes filled up in the first two weeks,” he said.

Austin’s GDI is typical of community college game development programs. It is an inter-disciplinary program with three tracks: game design, game programming and game art. Each degree track is intended to prepare students for entry-level jobs or to transfer to a four-year school, Gaber said. The institute is equipped with five state-of-the-art game development labs.

In addition, it houses an Applied Game Lab that allows students to develop projects as an individual or while interacting with industry. Students often design their own games and can start their own companies.

In a prepared statement, Linda Smarzik, dean of ACC’s Computer Studies and Advanced Technology Division, said: “The game development industry in Central Texas is projected to account for almost $1 billion in total economic impact in 2010. They are eager for new talent, and we’re excited to support growth of this important business sector.”

Austin is home to numerous video and computer game companies. That’s not the case in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. But the region is laden with military installations and associated contractors, creating a demand for workers skilled in simulation software development.

Hands On

That prompted Tidewater Community College to offer an associate of applied science degree in technical studies: modeling and simulation. It is a hands-on curriculum which prepares the student for entry-level employment, said Jody Strausser, an assistant professor at Tidewater Community College who heads the college’s modeling and simulation program.

“We don’t have a game industry in this area, but the skills that we teach are completely transferable to many of the industries that are here,” said Strausser, who previously worked in the defense industry. “Industries are getting on board, because it saves them a lot of money.”

Businesses are embracing modeling and simulation, he said, because it can use computer representations to study and understand interactions and train with systems that are too costly, too dangerous or physically impossible to build.

TCC offers not only a two-year associate degree, but also a career certificate program for those already in the field and seeking to burnish their skills.

The centerpiece of the school’s program is its Advanced Modeling and Simulation Laboratory, which features a 27-foot ceiling-recessed video screen, allowing students to become visually immersed in their modeling and simulation projects. Details that might be unseen on a computer moniter can’t be missed on the larger screen, Strausser said.

It also boosts collaboration. Students who have designed simulations on their own computers can bring the different environments together on the larger screen. Such teamwork is one of the demands of emerging businesses, he said.

The challenge for Strausser and others is getting students, parents and academics to understand that video and computer game design is a serious academic undertaking.

“It’s really...a learning process,” he said. “We have made some serious strides. I think my students find out quickly that it is a high intensity field. But once people get it, they get very excited about it. It’s picking up steam.”

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

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