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Want a College Degree in Computer Gaming?

Friday, February 22, 2002 by TheDoc

Written by: Bob Mandel Published: February 14, 2002
Due to soaring popularity, interactive entertainment has inserted itself into the consciousness of the mass consumer. As this addiction gains more acceptance and legitimacy, questions will emerge about the accompanying emergence of computer game development as a legitimate and accepted professional career. In order for computer gaming professionals to develop and flourish, there must be something beyond accumulated practical experience -- the emergence of university-level educational programs specializing in computer game development.

A recent major breakthrough in this field deserves focused attention. Beginning in January 2002, the University of Washington initiated a Certificate Program in Game Development to help fill the gap. Marrying the expertise of professional game developers and professors of computer science, this program has the potential to provide a model for others to follow to help improve the quality and quantity of future electronic game designers. This article provides a broad discussion of the debate about university degrees in computer gaming and their implications for the future, with specific analysis of the scope and nature of this particular program. I appreciate the extensive interview responses generously provided by those associated with the University of Washington program.

Background on the Gaming in University Education Debate

Until recently, the academic community largely ignored computer gaming. Two pressing needs therefore remained largely unfulfilled: to give students an understanding of the technical aspects of game programming, and to give designers an understanding of the social impact games have on those who play them. Traditionally, designers have gained their savvy through unusual paths, often laboriously learning through trial-and-error how to formulate and implement a great product, or alternatively hacking into the code of their favorite offerings to discover the secrets of programming electronic entertainment. Those who loved this form of digital recreation had no university-level degree program tailored to their passion.

This absence is explainable through a variety of reasons. Most commonly, there was certain snobbery within the ivory tower about whether computer game design had enough academic or intellectual content. The prevalent stigma associated with gaming assumed it did not represent the most noble aspects of human civilization worthy of extended study, and instead was part of the faddish drivel associated with transient popular culture. Even more than other forms of entertainment, such as movies, television, and music, the study of gaming seemed to have no place at all in the liberal arts, according to this critical view. While courses on computer graphics, artificial intelligence, and the like were present in every major computer science program, even a single course specifically covering computer game design was usually notably absent. Although a student might choose to program a computer game for a course, there was no official recognition that this focus was, in itself, worthy of academic credit.

Overview of the Certificate Program in Game Development

For the first time, the University of Washington is offering a Certificate Program in Game Development, designed to prepare computer programmers who know the C++ programming language to enter professional careers in this field. This 12-month evening program is designed to introduce students to the vocabulary, philosophy, and tools necessary to create computer and video games. There is a required classroom sequence of four noncredit courses, where each 30-hour course meets three hours per week for 10 weeks. 36 students are currently enrolled in this first iteration of the program.

The University of Washington program starts with an overview of how games are built, with students learning to write a simple 3D graphics engine in C++ using Direct 3D and to develop scenarios, virtual characters, and interaction with human players. By the end of the program, students will have created their own fully functional game with three-dimensional graphics and sound, artificial intelligence, and multiplayer capabilities. The certificate program focus is PC-based games, with concepts extendible to the Xbox console platform.

The entrance requirements are clear-cut: You must have college-level math skills, including linear algebra, matrix math, and trigonometry; college-level introductory physics training; and a certificate in C++ programming or experience programming in C++. Students are also required to have access, outside of class, to a personal computer with Windows 98 or later, a Pentium II 400 with at least 64M of RAM, and an Nvidia TNT or equivalent graphics card. Origins of the University of Washington Program

The primary stimulant for the creation of the program was the robust state of the interactive games business. University of Washington’s press release for the new program mentions game publishing, wholesaling, and retailing represented a $9.3 billion market in 2000, employing nearly 125,000 people. Wages in the field have also been healthy, with a reported average of $61,403 a year. Beyond salary, game developers appear to be motivated by the creative rush of perfecting a special form of entertainment they love for the consumer.

Game industry professionals underscore the need for trained experts. “Whenever we need to hire somebody, we are in trouble,” says Vassily Filippov, lead engineer at Sierra Online. “We search and search, and get lots of applications, but rarely do we get people we could hire.”

Filippov participates in technical interviews of job candidates, and is a member of the advisory board for the University of Washington program. Although unaware of the hiring needs of his company as a whole, he points out there is a great deal of frustration surrounding hiring new engineers. Senior level people are hard to find, he says, and junior level programmers go through a very long learning curve before becoming productive. Further, only one out of six candidates who go through the interview gets an offer. “Many people would like to work in game development, but lack the necessary skills straight out of college. We would prefer [to hire] people who have taken the first step to get acquainted with the video game industry. That first step could be a certificate program or an internship. It’s not just about learning the skills, it’s also about learning the language of the business,” says Flippov.

In response to Filippov’s identification of this educational need, University of Washington Educational Outreach conducted a survey of C and C++ certificate graduates to determine the level of interest of potential students in a game development certificate program. Sixty percent said the program would meet their needs, and 90 percent recommended offering the program. Barbara Smith, senior program manager of University of Washington’s educational outreach, then brought together an advisory board of two faculty members of the Computer Science and Engineering department and 13 industry leaders to consider the idea. She readily admits University of Washington’s favorable location near key game development companies played a significant role in the initiation of the program. The advisory board members validated the need for, and the difficulty in finding, qualified candidates for game development positions in their companies. The advisory board then defined the exit competencies allowing certificate program graduates to enter the game development field, and these competencies guided the design and definition of the four-course curriculum.

The University of Washington Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) department sponsors the certificate program. While two CSE faculty members played a crucial role, as members of the advisory board, in the development of the certificate program and in recruiting instructors, the bulk of the responsibility for carrying out the program rests with game development industry professionals. The current instructors in the program include Filippov; Joseph Laurino, software developer at web-based game and software developer WildTangent, who has worked on retails games at Zombie, Craveyard Studios, and Lithtech; Geoff Schwab, lead software engineer at Electronic Arts Seattle, with experience working at Sony Computer Entertainment and Sierra Online; and Ryan Woodland, lead programmer for Electronic Arts Seattle, with experience helping Nintendo design GameCube. Local companies with representatives on the advisory board are Sierra Online, Nintendo, Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Her Interactive, Valve, Wild Tangent, and HyberBole Studios.

Nature of the University of Washington Student Project

In response to whether first-person shooters, role-playing games, or real-time strategy offerings would all be equally acceptable, and what the basis for grading projects would be, Smith says the definition of the project and its grading criteria are under development for the second, third, and fourth courses. Students are not creating their own games in the first course, which is currently in progress. It will be interesting to see what forms of games are eventually permitted and most encouraged.

Concerning whether the University of Washington would have proprietary control of any software created in the program if, for example, a student wanted to turn it into a commercial product, Smith says no, although she is skeptical students will have the time to create commercial quality offerings. “While it might be possible during this program for a student to develop some code segments with commercial application, given the complexity of software architecture for gaming and the time constraints of the course, the program focuses more on the development of proficiency with programming skills. We expect students will begin the bulk of their commercial development once they complete the program, not while they are in it.”

The Direct3D API will be used in all the programs students create, and students will learn game programming exclusively on the Windows PC platform, as opposed to learning platform-independent coding or programming for console platforms. Since demand for console games is currently rising faster than that for PC games, Smith notes the concepts being taught are extendible to console games.

Beyond the skills needed to create the student project, the certificate program aims to emphasize teaching students the computer gaming field’s lingo and culture, including software development processes geared to the needs of the game industry, and the need for programmers, animators, and artists to communicate effectively and work well together. Lingo and culture will therefore be addressed in classroom lectures and discussions.

Evaluation of the University of Washington Program

Gaming technology is changing even faster than computer technology. Given this pattern, the University of Washington is hoping to ensure the skills students acquire during the certificate program are not obsolete six months after graduation. As a guarantee, Smith says, the certificate program will be reviewed annually by the advisory board and will be updated as required to maintain relevance to the industry’s current needs.

Since the program is just starting, evaluation mechanisms are in place to determine, down the road, whether it is a success or failure, and to indicate whether it ought to be expanded or contracted. Smith says the university will conduct student course evaluations and program exit surveys. The exit surveys will collect input on any immediate career changes relevant to the certificate program. The number of student applications coming in will help determine whether to expand or contract the program. Both computer science professors involved with the certificate program will participate in the annual review of the program curriculum, industry needs, and student feedback.

David Notkin, chair of the University of Washington computer science and engineering department, says it is unlikely the university will expand its computer games program into an official concentration or minor in the foreseeable future. “We don’t have any such concentrations or minors now, so it’s more an issue of how we structure our department than any problems with the sub-area.” So, at least at this institution of higher learning, even if the evaluation of the program is glowing, it is likely to remain confined.

Curious what some of the program’s positive long-term impacts on the games industry might be, I asked if consumers might expect changes such as tighter code, shorter development cycles, and fewer bugs in releases, should this idea spread to other schools. Filippov says the most significant outcome would be an increase in the number of qualified candidates eligible for game development positions, which could shorten development cycles, as some of the current projects are understaffed due to hiring difficulties. Other Computer Gaming Programs

Without doing a comprehensive systematic survey of all university-level computer gaming programs, which admittedly may change significantly over time, it appears a large number of institutions, including some prestigious ones, are inching in the direction of offering courses or programs on computer gaming. For example, at Carnegie Mellon University, the Entertainment Technology Program (administered jointly by the College of Fine Arts and School of Computer Science) offers a two-year masters program in Entertainment Technology, with over a dozen courses on games. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, several courses cover the study of games and the creation of virtual environments, with an industry perspective sometimes brought in to provide context. The computer science department at Northwestern University offers an undergraduate specialization in interactive entertainment, including one of the first computer game design courses in the nation. University of Michigan’s Graduate Program in Simulation and Gaming Studies incorporates faculty drawn from many fields including law, engineering, economics, business administration, and art. Finally the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California is putting together a masters of fine arts program in interactive entertainment starting in the fall of 2002 that will link the movie, television, and gaming industries.

Perhaps the most famed case has been at University of California at Irvine, where assistant professor of studio art Robert Nideffer has struggled mightily in support of the creation of a minor in computer gaming. The proposed interdisciplinary minor would combine courses from the arts and humanities, engineering, and social sciences curricula, along with those from the information and computer science department. Unlike the program at the University of Washington, the initiative created such controversy among the university faculty they voted it down in December 2000, despite significant pledges of support from several prominent game companies.


All of these prospects are promising, but what does all this academic mumbo jumbo mean to game fans? I am convinced others will copy University of Washington’s experiment, and the ripple effects will be sizable. Just as students go to university-sponsored creative writing programs to prepare to author books, video production programs to prepare to create movies, and music programs to prepare to be concert performers, society will soon accept they also should go to game development programs to prepare to be professional designers of digital recreation. The implications are readily apparent. First, our recreational addiction is indeed entering the mainstream. Second, in the future, more of us may be able use formal education to turn our hobby into a paying profession. Third, for those of us who like not only to play but also to program games, we no longer have to teach ourselves what we need to know or learn by the seat-of-our-pants. Fourth, college suddenly sounds a lot more fun. Fifth, game companies may be learning to augment their strength through profitable relationships with universities.

Are there downsides to this new development? Certainly, future programs may prove to be shams, with obsolete or irrelevant gaming programming taught by incompetents. Moreover, the proliferation of university games programs may somehow standardize and homogenize design, reducing the wonderfully idiosyncratic grassroots ingenuity present in many less formalized homegrown efforts. Finally, the spread of the study of this topic could easily trigger a new groundswell of snide jeers from those who find it totally unworthy of sustained analysis. Despite these dangers, we all should cheer that our passion has finally made its way into higher education’s curriculum.

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