Eric Remigino’s parents stopped telling him to get off the computer and do his homework when they realized that their eighth-grader’s enthusiasm for computer games had already earned him $5,000. Remigino, now 22, says that he got his first taste for professional game design when he found that players of the game he designed as a middle-schooler were willing to spend real money to buy virtual currency that they could use in the game.

In the fall, he became one of the first students to graduate from George Mason University with a degree in computer game design. Now, he is chief executive of his own company. And it’s not just his parents telling him it’s fine to keep playing computer games — it’s Prince William County.

The county’s department of economic development celebrated a new partnership with George Mason on Thursday, when it officially opened an office space for game designers. The county hopes that the chance to work in inexpensive offices, adjacent to other game developers and George Mason professors, will lure cutting-edge small businesses to the area. Remigino’s fledgling company was one of the first five to move in.

The new office space, called the Simulation and Game Institute, is on the university’s Prince William campus and was funded by a $32,000 grant from the county and additional funding from five corporate sponsors. A
ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday drew many political leaders, including county supervisors, members of the state General Assembly and Karen Jackson, the state secretary of technology, who told the crowd she had tried a virtual reality skiing game designed by George Mason students.

“If it wasn’t hard enough to keep the kids off of video games, this isn’t making it easier,” Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) quipped. Annie Hunt Burriss, chief executive of the university’s Prince William campus, made a similar joke. “As a mother, when [County Executive] Melissa [Peacor] was talking about this gaming stuff, I thought, ‘Good God almighty, I can’t do this.’ I spent most of my motherhood trying to keep my boy away from these games.”

But Burriss said she came to see the value in fostering game design. “The real reason we all are here is about economic development.”

The speakers recited statistics about why attracting game companies is a good investment — simulation and games are an $80 billion industry, they said, with a 7 percent annual growth rate. And they think their 4,000-square-foot institute is the first of its kind on the East Coast, so businesses will have reason to move into Prince William.

Plus, the games themselves may offer more than just entertainment.

Remigino and the others in his year-old company — another full-time employee and nine college students receiving credit for their work — are developing an app that they hope will make exercising more appealing. It sorts songs by the number of beats per minute so users can select music that’s in time with their workouts.

Another company in the space, a four-person operation called Little Arms Studios, is working on a simulation that can be used to train firefighters. The developers have studied the physics of fires, even interning with the Fairfax County fire department, so that they can realistically depict the sort of challenges firefighters might face.

Marco Rubin works at a Herndon company called Center for Innovative Technology that invests in fledgling technology companies. “This is sort of a find — this is new for this area,” Rubin said. “It think that, but for this, these people would be hobbyists — you get really great developers and content guys, but they need some development on the business side. How many 19- or 20-year-olds know how to write a business plan? Hopefully they’ll learn that here.”

Alex Estep, art director of Little Arms Studios, said exposure to people such as Rubin is one of the major benefits of moving into the institute. “Most important are the connections to business and game and simulation ties,” he said. “It makes it easier to get access to those people.”

The new tenants pay $600 per month to rent their office space. Both Estep and Remigino said the rate is more affordable than other office space in the county, and that they do programming work for outsiders to afford it.

“We could still be working on it out of our basement,” Estep said. “But if you’re working in the basement, it’s kind of fun. You can get off track. I find, myself, working in an office is a lot more structured.”