New video game design degree popular at GMU

By Holly Hobbs
The Gazette
Thursday, April 29, 2010; VA19

Who would have thought that playing video games could help students prepare for college?

As officials at George Mason University quickly found out, even they underestimated the interest the school's new bachelor's degree in video game design.

Students are flocking to the program.

"We've been overwhelmed," said Scott M. Martin, assistant dean for technology, research and advancement at GMU. "Our anticipated enrollment for the fall is 500 percent higher than we expected."

GMU professors are training students to develop the art of the future, combining creativity with technology, Martin said.

"I've always loved video games," said Katherine Lee, 22, a senior who is majoring in the program. Her favorite classes are those that allow students to create games or add to existing ones, Lee said.

"They're giving us really good skills for the field," said Lee, who hopes to one day work at Pixar Animation Studios or for a video entertainment group.

Course titles under the program include "Culture and Theory of Games," which explores the theory, history, culture and lore of computer games. Other courses focus on computer programming, digital arts and graphics and motion capture, which digitally records body or facial movements by actors or dancers.

George Mason first offered the program last fall, when officials anticipated that it would enroll about 30 full-time and five part-time students. Although several colleges offer computer gaming degree programs in the United States, GMU offers the only four-year program in Virginia and the area.

The university's original goal was to increase the program's enrollment by as many as 110 students by 2013, Martin said. Currently 200 students are enrolled, and that number is increasing.

"We are receiving inquiries from around the world, and applications at every level have been very strong," GMU Dean of Admissions Andrew Flagel said.

Robinson High School senior Ramez Hashlamon, 17, has committed to attend GMU next year. He takes animation classes at Fairfax Academy's professional graphics studio, which is part of the county's public school system.

Ramez said that he is interested in the animation side of video gaming and that he is leaning toward a career in film animation. The flexibility and scope of the courses offered by GMU's program is appealing to him, he said.

The professional gaming community also is taking notice of what's happening at GMU.

"There have been a lot of game design programs popping up all over the place in the last decade. A lot of schools are focusing on specific areas, like game design," said veteran game writer Bob Bates, who co-founded Legend Entertainment, a computer game development company, and has written about the business of game development. "You run into a problem where kids aren't getting the full picture. Then they get out of school and find out that they don't like the game industry."

GMU instructors, he said, are making an effort to provide a well-rounded education.

"The fact that they've had the vision to address the full student, that's interesting to me," he said. "It's not a trade school on video gaming. It's how to make an art form of gaming."

Regions such as Washington are becoming known as important markets for gaming, Bates said. Serious games -- those used to train military and special operations, doctors and others who use simulators -- could become a market force in the region, especially because of its proximity to federal government centers, he added.

GMU is positioning its program to address future needs, said Eugene Evans, general manager of Bioware Mythic, a Fairfax-based studio that is part of Electronic Arts, Inc., which develops, markets, publishes and distributes video games internationally.

"Gaming has been shifting from Silicon Valley," he said. "More and more companies are looking to take advantage of the excellent gaming courses that . . . draw in talent. There are probably a dozen gaming companies in the mid-Atlantic region.

"This course bodes well for the future of gaming in this region. The team at GMU is putting a strong emphasis on a broad set of disciplines and instilling an entrepreneurial spirit, which could mean many new start-ups within a few years."

That is the goal, said Martin, who put together GMU's program.

"I see results of this program really stimulating a new industry in Northern Virginia, transforming our economy," he said.

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