UC Irvine's New Computer-Games Major Gets Its Game On

The school is banking big on computer games as an emerging discipline

Although Nideffer dropped his plans, his colleagues persisted. El Zarki and Frost, along with Walt Scacchi, the research director of the Center for Computer Games & Virtual Worlds, spearheaded another push for the major, which no longer would be the first of its kind—USC and UC Santa Cruz had already approved video-game-focused majors that launched in 2006. They started the proposal process in September 2009, and it was approved by the end of the year, falling under the auspices of UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences. It was too late for high-school seniors to apply directly to the program, as the deadline to submit college applications had already passed, so the department e-mailed each applicant accepted into other computer-science majors with the opportunity to transfer into the new program. The faculty was thrilled with the number of students who wanted in.

“I had hoped we’d have at least 15 students,” Frost says. Instead, 41 incoming freshman switched their majors within months—and more are expected to apply once incoming student applications make their way to the professor’s in-box.

One selling point for UCI’s program is its location. Orange County is home to a number of gaming companies, including Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment, the developer of the wildly popular World of Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo series. The computer-game powerhouse, for which a number of UCI’s students have gone on to intern and work, is armed with 1,100 employees and plans to expand its headquarters by 40 percent. In forming the major, Frost says, his department—made up of faculty from academia, not the game industry—turned to friends at these companies for guidance. “They said, ‘You’ve got to have a course on cell-phone games,’” he says, referring to a conversation he had with a buddy at the now-defunct local game developer Javaground. “So we created one.” The Mobile and Ubiquitous Games course will debut next year.

“It’s really cool to see higher education embracing interactive entertainment and providing tools and skills necessary for aspiring developers to succeed in the industry,” says Lenny Grossi, director of global staffing at Blizzard. “By teaching the core skill sets, students can not only determine if game development is the right path for them, but it will also hopefully help them transition more easily into the working world.”

Frost adds that in the midst of budget cuts throughout the UC system, the School of Information and Computer Sciences hasn’t been badly hit. Hal Stern, the school’s dean, says it opted to dedicate faculty and resources to the new major as it has great potential to attract even more students. “We are excited to see what will happen with the class of 2011,” Stern says. Last year, with millions of dollars in corporate funding and federal grants, UCI established its center to study computer games and “virtual worlds,” simulations that can be used for everything from astronaut training to courtroom reenactments to observing plants in virtual greenhouses. More than 25 faculty members from various disciplines—engineering, art, dance, education, humanities, anthropology, even a librarian—were brought together to study the scientific and cultural aspects of games, areas the dollar-minded industry has largely overlooked. The center is adding a 20-room Cyber-Interaction Observatory, complete with floor-to-ceiling projection screens, 3-D stereoscopic displays and gesture-based interfaces.

Though still in its infancy, the center is already a hive of activity that’s bringing in nationally known speakers and producing innovative studies. Robert Hall from AT&T Labs in New Jersey recently led a talk and outdoor demonstration on GeoGames, which are revivals of classic games such as hide-and-seek, updated with the use of location-aware smartphones. Bonnie Nardi, an informatics professor and one of the center’s affiliated faculty members, conducted a cross-cultural study on World of Warcraft through a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Going “undercover” as a game character, her particular mission was to examine the differences in gaming habits and culture between the United States and China, a country where an astounding 5 million people participate in the online role-playing game.

Once considered “edgy” and, to some, a waste of money, Nardi says, her research extends beyond the game itself. In her book My Life As a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft—released earlier this year by the University of Michigan Press and used as reading material in Frost’s Computer Games and Society course—she calls WoW “an exemplar of a new means of forming and sustaining human relationships and collaborations through digital technology.” Knowing how to interact with people online is a key skill in life, she explains. “We’re not just going to be working with people sitting in the next cubicle.”

“It’s the right time”for the push, El Zarki says. A slight woman with short, curly brown hair, the Egyptian-born professor first realized the power of games when her two young sons started rattling off facts on Greek mythology, stuff she’d never heard before. They learned all of it from a video game. “Games are much more absorbing than just the written word,” says the former electrical engineer, speaking with speed and slight accent. “We’re moving away from plain, old textbooks. For the new generation, multimedia is their bread and butter.”

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