Colleges offer video games major
By Stephen Berger
December 02, 2005
Every few years, a new major is added to the offerings at Hopkins to keep up with changes in academia and in the job market. Neuroscience, East Asian studies and history of science all draw from exciting and relatively specialized fields of inquiry. If trends at other colleges are any indication, the next major to be offered at Hopkins might be video games.
Schools as diverse as Carnegie Mellon, the University of Southern California and Parsons, the New School for Design, have started programs to teach students everything they need to know about the next generation of interactive media.
But hardcore gamers should be warned: the programs are anything but playtime. Classes at these schools focus on teaching students how to create realistic and engaging games. They are often taught from both an artistic and a computer science approach, and they frequently demand a serious time commitment in labs and group projects.
According to the people involved with the programs, they are intended for students interested in joining the growing digital gaming industry. Industry insiders say their businesses today are experiencing the growth movie studios and television stations did decades ago, making them eager to recruit new talent.
Add to this growth the increasing complexity of computer, video, and Internet-based games, which means there is a broader and more difficult set of skills to learn to be successful. They include story and character development, art design and how to integrate the latest hardware, as well as the technical elements of programming.
Video gaming classes help students turn an idea for a game into a completed and marketable final product. Group projects in which games are developed from scratch are a common teaching tool. The hope of these programs is to send out graduates ready to start designing the next generation of interactive entertainment.
Programs in game programming reflect a larger trend among colleges and universities. Technology-related majors are springing up at institutions of higher learning across the country, even at staid and traditional schools, in response to changing realities in the American job market.
From nanotechnology to virtual reality to the Internet, the modern worker must navigate a maze of technological advances when choosing a career. Traditionally, much of the advanced training for these sorts of technical jobs occurred after the employee was hired. But more and more, tech companies demand specialized knowledge before they will even consider an application.
That's where these new college programs come in. They supply technical know-how and experience long before a student enters the real world, where resources are spare and mistakes are costly. They also nurture promising talent and serve as a hotbed of new ideas and fresh approaches to old problems.
Skeptics question whether such areas of study are necessary or appropriate in colleges and universities. Some people in the video game industry argue that the only way to learn how to be successful in the industry is to actively participate in the process at a real company.
Other skeptics ask if game design is a true academic discipline, worthy of being taught in the halls of a prestigious university. Applied technical studies may be out of place among the classical disciplines of academia. They echo the sentiment that specialized technical knowledge should be learned by experience in industry.
Proponents of these courses respond that the growing complexity of video games, and of technology in general, makes it crucial to develop a sound theoretical basis to back up everyday practice. They point to the early years of the film industry, when schools teaching actors and directors sprang up across the country and had a crucial impact on the success of the new industry.
Despite these ongoing doubts, tech-related majors are likely to become more prominent at colleges and universities in the coming years. Specialized education in college will help students tailor their interests and hone their skills, while giving industry the best and the brightest. Who knows: your next class could be PacMan 101.