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

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

Frost and El Zarki say the major gives students a broad understanding of games. They can go on to work in the front end or back end, or enter areas such as databases and security. Or, if they decide, they can go into a different field altogether, yet still benefit from the program. It’s not just about making games, they say. It’s about problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork.

The two are looking into adding two computer-game-science minors—one focused on game design and the other on computer science. Some faculty members hope a master’s degree will follow, though Frost adds the approval process for a new graduate program is even more extensive than for a new undergraduate major. All that’s certain is that the fresh ideas will be coming from the next generation of game developers.

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Reza Ghassemi stares at a black laptop, dissecting the appearance of a dwarf named Lund, the star of a game he’s working on.

“Make his boots darker,” he tells his teammate, who begins clicking on tools in Photoshop. “Yeah, make him dirtier.”

Ghassemi, 22, is the president of UCI’s Video Game Development Club, made up of about 50 students from different departments, including some from the computer-game-science major. The objective of the club is to help future game developers build up portfolios and demo reels. “All the teaching in the world can’t compare to a working prototype, mod or finished game in the hands of a potential employer,” its website reads.

Slouched over computers in Room CS180 in the computer-science building and munching on Jelly Bellys, the students invent characters, create dialogue, select music and write code, depending on their expertise, just as they would if they were working at a real game company. All the while, they talk about their greatest passion.

“So then, he kills the entire team with one bullet,” one kid says, describing a scene in the sniper game Modern Warfare.

“Oh, shiiiiiit!” his friend replies.

Geoff Kaiser and Christine Li sit in one corner, dressed in costumes to celebrate the release of the new game Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood; it’s going to go on sale at midnight. Their matching ensembles (white hooded capes, brown belts and boots, black gloves, and metal blades that slide out from their wrists) are inspired by the main character of the game, Ezio Auditore da Firenze. “It’s Italian,” Kaiser explains.

He is in the final stages of a project called Push, a chess-like strategy game that takes place in post-World War III Europe. For the 20-year-old from Los Altos, designing games had long been a dream.

“I was always making up stories as a kid, wondering, ‘How does this work? What can I do with it?’” says Kaiser, a studio-arts major. “In creating games, it’s so great seeing each step come together. It’s like seeing your child walk for the first time, and then say its first word.”

Taylor Wikstrom, one of the handful of women in the club, says she was always told video games were a “boys’ thing” by her two brothers, but discovered a niche for herself when she started playing Metroid on the original Nintendo NES. At the end of the game, the main character, a spacesuit-wearing ex-marine named Samus, is revealed as a woman when she removes her helmet. “She’s tough,” Wistrom says. “She kicks a lot of ass.”

As children who routinely got in trouble for playing video games too much or too late at night, Britch and Lee agree getting their parents to support their educational pursuits was the biggest hurdle. For some kids, it’s like telling Mom and Dad you want to join the circus. Britch laughs as he remembers getting in trouble for playing Halo, Empire Earth and Final Fantasy at 2 or 3 in the morning. “When I heard those footsteps coming down the stairs, I would, like, try to turn everything off and hide in the dark,” he says.

“My parents said it didn’t seem like a legitimate major,” Lee adds. “They wanted me to go into something like law or economics. They only started to be convinced after I talked about the computer-programming aspects. My dad is a programmer for Toshiba, so now we have something to talk about.”

“At first, my dad didn’t understand,” says Britch. “He thought it would just be me playing Xbox and him supporting it.”

Now, to his parents or anyone else who may raise an eyebrow, Britch explains that the major is more than fun and games. “It’s not just like, ‘Hey, let’s all play the new Halo game, and it’ll be fun,’” he says. “It’s, ‘Hey, the new Halo game came out, and it was successful. Why was it successful? What appealed to gamers? What part of that game can we bring to our games?’”

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