The .game column in the Sept. 29 Business section incorrectly said that the University of Baltimore is in the process of developing a degree program in video game creation. The university's program in video game design is in its second year. (Published 10/1/2005)
Video game school.
Sounds like a joke, right? Sort of like "School of Rock"?
But check out the back pages of a gamer magazine, any gamer magazine, and you'll find -- among the ads from Electronics Boutique and the mini-reviews of the latest PlayStation Portable games -- opportunities to pursue a college degree in video games.
"Be lame or get game," boasts one advertisement that promises to train students in the arts of animation and visual effects. "Without guys like me, you'd still be playing Pong," is the quote from an alum of another college, an industry veteran who graduated all of one year ago.
Suddenly, the idea of a degree in video games is one that might even persuade the parents who grumble about the high cost of video games to write a tuition check.
These days, there are companies that pay big bucks to computer science geniuses who can develop the next big thing -- a Grand Theft Auto sort of game that will generate a big following and big sales.
Carnegie Mellon University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, now offer master's degrees in game development. The University of Southern California offers a graduate degree in interactive media and an undergraduate program in game design. Locally, the University of Baltimore is putting together an undergraduate degree in video game development.
The Entertainment Software Association, an industry trade group, puts the number of colleges and schools offering some sort of gaming-related coursework at over 50.
"Just like students went to school in the '60s and '70s wanting to study the works of Hitchcock, students now want to go to school to study the work of [Sims designer] Will Wright," said Dan Hewitt, a spokesman for the ESA.
Maybe the thought of creating the next Sims or Halo or Grand Theft Auto is what lured a guy named Ahmed, a twentysomething University of Maryland grad, to come back to his alma mater yesterday, taking a day off from his current job to approach possible video game employers at an on-campus job fair.
He waited anxiously around the Microsoft booth, where recruiters were talking to students about jobs throughout the company, including its Xbox division.
"You guys can have anybody you want," Ahmed told the Microsoft recruiter, a guy who just wrapped up work on the software guts for the forthcoming Xbox 360 game console.
"How can I prove myself?" asked Ahmed, who wouldn't share his last name because his current boss didn't know he was job hunting.
A degree seems to be a good start -- but no one should be fooled into thinking that a college degree in gaming is easier than trying to beat the next level. There is plenty of classroom work behind these degrees.
At Carnegie Mellon, students will have to take classes such as Intro to Entertainment Technology, Building Virtual Worlds and Game Design, as well as many others. But it's hard to measure the significance of these sorts of degrees. The idea of a video game education is so new that, even within the gaming industry, the jury is still out on whether these degrees are worth the sheepskin they're printed on.
Timonium, Md.-based Big Huge Games Inc. has hired a couple of programmers from Full Sail Real World Education, a tiny school in Florida that offers degrees in video game design. But founder Brian Reynolds said he's still surprised when he spots video game degrees featured prominently on the resumes he receives.
"It's like, 'Hey, this guy went to a games school -- let's talk to him!' " he said.
When Reynolds got started, the industry was made up entirely of self-taught wizards with tiny budgets and a passion for games. His degree, for what it's worth, was in philosophy, not game design.
Still, so high is the academic interest in gaming that talking to schools about building a games curriculum is becoming a mini-industry within itself.
Ernest Adams, a former game designer at Electronic Arts Inc. who worked on the early Madden football games, has since found a second career as a Johnny Appleseed of video game coursework. (Strangely, he's another former student of philosophy.)
"Even the biggest of big guns are starting to get interested," he said. He has lectured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at schools based everywhere from New Zealand to Sweden. He has authored a book on breaking into the business and is, meanwhile, working on what might be the world's first textbook on making video games.
But Mark Jacobs, founder of the Fairfax-based game designer Mythic Entertainment Inc., said he finds the occurrence of video game degrees a "mixed blessing."
"Degrees are good," he said. "Experience is better."
Jacobs fears that students with such degrees will develop unrealistic ideas about how the real world works.
But who's to say what's unrealistic? There's always the chance that the next generation -- maybe the U-Md. grad Ahmed -- will change how the industry works.
For now, he can't do it on his own.
"I need a team of 100 people and millions of dollars," Ahmed said. "I don't have that."
But a company like Microsoft Corp. or Electronic Arts does.