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Go to College, Play Video Games and Get a Degree? How Cool Is That!

October 23, 2008 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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A Philadelphia University student experiments with some of the hands-on technology from the school's digital design program.

Pong? Try again. Tetris? No way.

Today's video games are a far cry from what they were even a few years ago, let alone a decade or two. As technology has progressed and gaming has become more interactive, games have become bigger business and a larger part of the culture. Educators have responded in kind, and the Entertainment Software Association reports that more than 200 colleges nationwide now offer courses or degrees in video-game design and development -- including several Philadelphia-area schools.

Perhaps the most in-depth gaming education in the area comes from the University of Pennsylvania, which offers an engineering master's degree in computer graphics and gaming technology.

"The only way to do what we wanted to do in one year was to presume a computer-science background for our applicants," said digital media design director Norm Badler, adding that the program had no regional or national antecedent. "It ended up being a very good choice, because we got students that were reasonably- to well-trained in computer science. It gave us the opportunity to have them focus on things that would lead them into the games and movie industry."

The program entails a variety of courses, including computer graphics and animation technology, as well as 3-D modeling and contemporary programming methods, all taught on industry-standard software. The focus at Penn is a mix of game development and game design -- in other words, a mix of creating games and then executing those ideas -- but Badler said students are also encouraged to take a few business courses to round out their education about the industry.

"Some game companies are very small startups, and they have to understand what it's like to be an entrepreneur in that environment," he said. "It's not sufficient to just be a programmer; one needs to be able to understand the business dynamic."

Said Stephen Lane, director of computer grahics and growing technology, the program's co-director with Badler: "The nature of the business and technology is such that when you come out [of Penn's program], it's almost giving you the equivalent of a year of experience. Not so much on the software side in engineering, but in the business and how it all fits together. That's why we put the program together, to be able to have students go to school for a year and then hit the ground running when they graduate."

Not the Only Game in Town
Though Penn offers the highest degree in gaming, they're certainly not the only -- ahem -- game in town.

Drexel University hosts the RePlay Lab, a joint venture between the school's computer-science and digital-media departments. While students choose a major from either of those two fields, the lab allows them to specialize in game development.

"There's a whole series of courses now cross-listed between the two programs, where we have the two majors working together, which is really a critical thing, teaching the students to work in a multidisciplined environment, and working out of their expertise," said Paul Diefenbach, co-director of the RePlay Lab and an assistant professor of digital media.

Diefenbach said that, while computer-science majors focus on programming logic and designing software (typical for that major), digital-media students learn some programming, but also focus on art and design, as well as 3-D skills, like modeling and animation.

"When we talk about gaming, we lump it in really with the broader market called simulation, which could be anything from training police and firefighters and emergency management situations, to making technology more accessible to people that have disabilities. So the technology goes much more than the traditional making of a game that's going to play on the latest Nintendo or Playstation system," the professor said.

Though there's no specific tracking, enrollment in area video-game education programs tends to skew largely towards Asian students, with a mix of Jewish and other students making up the difference.

Bridging Worlds
While Philadelphia University doesn't offer a major in game design, the discipline is something that's touched on in several of the school's digital-media courses, said Sherman Finch, interim director of the school's digital master's program.

One venture in the "Digital Innovation Design" course found students hacking into a Super Mario Bros. Nintendo game and modifying it to allow human interaction with the game. Part of the game involves Mario jumping to grab coins while suspended in mid-air; the students modified the game to focus solely on jumping. While Mario moves independently, when jumping was required students would jump on a trampoline, causing Mario to jump on-screen. Beneath the trampoline was a sensor that judged the pressure and height of the jump and added that to the player's score.

Finch said that that interactive gaming session "focused on bridging the physical world with the virtual world."

That sense of bridging the physical and virtual worlds is a central tenet of modern gaming. Essentially, the same technology behind games like Call of Duty is also used for military and police training, as well as biomedical and engineering fields, and even air-traffic-control training. There's even a diplomatic side to video games -- last year saw the premiere of PeaceMaker, a tactical diplomacy game centered on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But with so many schools offering gaming-related courses or degrees, isn't there a danger that all these students may eventually saturate the job market? Not so, said Gary Katz, a recent graduate of Penn's program.

"The video-game industry makes more money than Hollywood these days," said Katz, adding that advances in technology equal increased jobs, because of the number of people required to create more-and-more complex video games.

While a movie ticket averages around $10, a new video game can cost upwards of $50 (to say nothing of the cost of the system it's played on). According to PC World magazine, the video gaming industry raked in nearly $18 billion in total sales for 2007 -- a 42-percent increase over 2006, and almost double last year's grosses at the movies (as determined by the National Organization of Theatre Owners).

"As these games start to get more and more complex, it's going to increase the number of people working on each game," said Katz.

Lane agrees, but from a slightly different perspective.

"I'd say, in general, it's a growing industry, and there are jobs, and companies are hiring," he said. "One caveat, though, is that most of the time these companies want people that already have experience, and, so, coming out of school, say, at the undergrad level, where you have a couple of courses in graphics or animation but no real experience developing anything, is not necessarily enough to land you a job. If you come from one of the very top schools, you may have a better chance, because a lot of times these big companies, like Electronic Arts, are hiring on potential." 

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