Gaming the System

By Eugene L. Meyer
Sunday, August 6, 2006

It's about 8 o'clock on a Monday night in January, break time for the students in Montgomery College's CA190, "Introduction to Game and Simulation Development." Rick Jelly, one of the 18 students in the class, walks out of the computer science building for a smoke. At 45, the blue-collar guy with a trim red beard could be mistaken for a visiting parent. Most of his classmates are 20 years old, give or take a year. They've been raised on video games, the medium that they're studying in this course. Jelly, on the other hand, is decidedly old school.

He spent almost 30 years in the printing business, still smokes menthols and takes the bus to class because he doesn't have a car. He gets by by supplementing a Pell grant with a $7-an-hour, 15-hour-a-week job as a computer lab assistant on the college's Rockville campus.

He knows the world is changing, and he is trying to change with it. If all goes well, he'll receive an associate's degree next year and move on to a four-year college that offers a bachelor's program in game design. Then, he hopes, it's on to a future of earning six figures -- not an unrealistic expectation in the $10 billion-a-year game development industry, where starting annual pay ranges from $40,000 to $60,000.

For jump-starting this dream, Jelly credits Montgomery College, which, he says, "opened my eyes" to the possibility of a career in video game design. And he's not the only one. As computer games have become part of our culture, the process of producing them has found a niche in academia.

Today, hundreds of colleges and universities around the world -- including respected schools such as Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Southern California -- offer courses and degree programs in computer gaming, as do a growing number of community colleges.

"This began to build about five years ago," explains Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, a Washington-based trade group. "We started to see some universities dedicate programs to people seeking careers in the industry." For today's students, who have "grown up with video games as a core part of their diet," Lowenstein says, "the opportunity to enter careers in the video game industry is as, if not more, attractive than the film sector."

These college courses aren't all fun and games. They take discipline, teamwork and creativity. Many schools have added a focus on "serious gaming," which applies interactive and simulation techniques familiar to family room gamers to less frivolous pursuits. This burgeoning part of the industry is providing job opportunities for game designers and programmers in fields including medicine, military training, education and even dispute resolution. Government and private industry are the major consumers.

"Formal education is becoming more and more important," says Joe Biglin, an executive with BreakAway Games, a top producer of serious games. "We like people with some exposure to a liberal arts curriculum. We have programmers and artists, but also writers and people who do accounting and every kind of job you can think of."

With more than 50 game development companies, the state of Maryland claims to be the East Coast hub of the industry. The largest concentration is in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley, home to BreakAway and industry giant Firaxis Games, whose legendary director of creative development, Sid Meier, conceived the best-selling Civilization series.

ENTER THE COMMUNITY COLLEGES. Montgomery College's gaming program began in 2004, largely at the initiative of assistant professor Deborah Solomon, 36, a former human rights and labor lawyer. Solomon graduated from the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda before going to Brown University. While getting her law degree from Harvard, she found herself playing the shooting game Doom instead of studying for exams. The pastime changed her life.

"I got into Web development. It started as a hobby. I enjoyed it so much -- it was so Zen and peaceful in comparison to suing oil companies -- I decided I was ready for a career change," she says. She held a series of contract jobs in the industry before her mother, who was taking photography classes at Montgomery College, suggested she teach there. Solomon joined the school's computer applications department in January 2002. The first certificates in computer gaming were awarded two years later. By last fall, the college had added an associate's degree in the field. Now, Montgomery students have the option of going on to the University of Baltimore, which offers junior- and senior-level classes culminating in a bachelor's degree in gaming.

This spring, Solomon taught three courses at Montgomery College, including the introductory-level CA190. The class met for nearly four hours on Monday evenings. Students discussed the merits of various games, learned industry jargon and debated ethical issues related to violence and obscenity. They also covered highlights in the history of the industry, from 1958's Tennis for Two, a Pong precursor that was developed for the oscilloscope, to 1980 mega-seller Pac-Man, whose author was inspired after taking a bite out of a pizza, to the present.

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