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Colleges offering video game studies
Updated: 2004-05-13 10:41

Playing video games is no longer just a pastime of young boys. Now it's also homework for American college students.

Thanks to the growing place of games in mainstream entertainment, universities across the United States are now offering classes in video game design, hoping to teach students skills for a career in a business that now generates roughly as much revenue as Hollywood's domestic box office receipts.

A scene from the video game from Activision "Doom 3" is shown this undated publicity photograph. The game was showcased at The Electronic Entertainment Expo or E3, a trade show for the video game industry, which opened in Los Angeles May 12, 2004. [Reuters]

This fall, students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York -- internationally known for its mathematicians and engineering programs -- can minor in video game studies, said Kathleen Ruiz, co-director of the new program.

"Games are an important part of culture and are here to stay," said Ruiz, a digital artist who teaches a class where students play and design video games. Ruiz created a nonviolent game called "Bang, Bang (You're Not Dead?)."

Ruiz' class will be included in the new minor, and students will work on games that get away from the traditional "shooter" games, which largely focus on war, and criminal adventure games like the ultra-popular "Grand Theft Auto."

The new program is one of many at major universities across the country. The University of Southern California recently announced a partnership with the world's largest video game publisher, Electronic Arts, to create a program in video game design that will offer a master's degree in fine arts.

Other institutions offering classes in video game studies include Princeton, Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institution of Technology, and the University of California at Irvine. There are also specialized schools, like DigiPen in Redmond, Washington, that teach nothing but game design.

A display for Sega's video game Matrix Online, based on the popular Matrix film, is showcased at The Electronic Entertainment Expo or E3, a trade show for the video game industry, which opened in Los Angeles May 12, 2004. Many companies will be introducing new hardware and software titles for fans of video games. [Reuters]

Now that more women are playing video games, they also are entering the video gaming field as designers and programmers, said Ralph Noble, associate professor of cognitive science who will be incorporating some of his psychology classes for the game studies program, which will involve 100 students.

"Computer games are being played by soccer moms in between running around," Noble said.

Contrary to popular assumptions about game players, the average age of regular gamers is 29 years old, and statistically, there are more women over the age of 18 playing games than teen-age boys.

Games like "The Sims," where players build virtual people who live in a vast world with families, friends, houses and entertainment events, have made video games more enticing to a wider audience than young boys, Ruiz said.

Noble also said the industry is struggling to devise new games with mass appeal. As a result, he and Ruiz hope their students will design the video games of the future.

"The challenge now is to make games more realistic," said Marc DeStefano, an RPI alum and co-director of the game studies program. "Within 10 years, the technology and graphics will be as good as they are ever going to get."

The RPI course will include classes in motivation and performance, 3-D animation, computer music, acting and basic drawing.


At Ruiz' recent experimental game design class, small groups of students worked together because in the "real" world, it takes 20-50 people working for a year to create a new game, he said. The students' final grade is based largely on the game they develop.

Students are from a variety of disciplines, including computer programming, architecture and electronic arts. They also bring musical talents and scientific knowledge to the "drawing table," which is a laptop computer.

The class takes place in an art studio where students work on couches and enjoy coffee and doughnuts as they create sci-fi and adventure games.

One group called the Blue Screen of Life designed an intellectual game called "Paragon," where characters try to cope with life in a virtual town as players make choices that help them have the best experience.

"We hope to give each character a script that is specific to their 'mood,"' said Sera Galvin, a senior from Bloomville, N.Y. "If you are consistently rude to someone in the town, this might mean the person will become increasingly hostile to you."

"Activating Play" is another innovative computer game that uses cell phone and global satellite positioning technology to play it. The character is a person who is running for the office of mayor in the city of Troy. The player has to learn all about the city before he or she can be elected.

"I started playing games on my dad's old PC when I was in elementary school," said Matt Giacomazzo, a junior from Wayne, Maine. "Now I design the music for them."

Giacomazzo and his team created the game "Synergy," which uses a lap-top and a dance pad popularized in malls to play the game with different blobs of slime bouncing around the screen. The player has to grab as many blobs as he or she can to win.

Since video game design is in high demand at RPI, school officials may decide to make it a major in the near future, Ruiz said.

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