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

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

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

Open House Night remains a standard of American higher education, an opportunity for colleges and universities to convince prospective students and skeptical parents why their institutions are the best, why the parents should spend the next four to five years scrounging to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, why the student must enroll in that program and ignore the competition. Administrators and professors pull out all the proverbial stops to impress recruits, from spending thousands on glossy packets to name-dropping prominent alumni to offering tours of grandiose campus architecture and boasting about the assured millions in salary that will inevitably come after graduation.

But for UC Irvine’s computer-game-science major, the pitch is simple: computer screens. With computer games loaded onto them. There they are—take them.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, dozens of high-school seniors sat in front of computer screens at UCI’s Donald Bren Hall, clicking, clacking and staring, trying out the creations of current Anteaters.

Trent Stassi
John Gilhooley
Trent Stassi
A character in development: A witty prisoner!
A character in development: A witty prisoner!
Reza Ghassemi is president of the Video Game Development Club, which produced The Angry Hand of God
John Gilhooley
Reza Ghassemi is president of the Video Game Development Club, which produced The Angry Hand of God
Magda El Zarki sits in the Computer-Game-Science Lab, with Nucleon on the screen
John Gilhooley
Magda El Zarki sits in the Computer-Game-Science Lab, with Nucleon on the screen

One is entranced by Angry Hand of God, in which players become the ruler of the heavens and must strike things on Earth—cars, buildings, gas stations, mortals—with a lightning-bolt-shooting finger. Another furiously moves his mouse trying to guard an atomic nucleus under attack by dangerous radiation particles in the game Nucleon. Around the corner, a group stares with mouths half-open at a gleaming, multimonitor display showing Colossal Crisis; players are gathering various parts to build a robot that will take on a giant monster destroying the city.

In this game lab, one volunteer sits with a brainwave-reading apparatus hooked to his head, while another shows off a driving game that’s built like an ATV and can drive on real roads. As current students chat about the many games they’ve developed and designed—demoed on sleek, black, 40-inch flat-screen monitors lining the walls—wide-eyed parents stammer out words of awe.

“I can’t believe it!”

“We’re old!”

“This is the future!”

Their children, mostly messy-haired boys wearing untucked T-shirts and holding cans of Coke and Mountain Dew, smile and nod in shy approval. This is home.

Once seen on college campuses as a nerdy pastime that invaded residence halls late into the night, taking young scholars away from books, computer games are now considered a serious discipline, one that captures the interest of scholars across the globe and the deep pockets of the multibillion-dollar computer-gaming industry. As the medium expands to encompass everything from blockbuster epics to Angry Birds, UCI is trying to soar along with it, establishing the Center for Computer Games & Virtual Worlds, planning a Cyber-Interaction Observatory for faculty research, and—this fall—introducing an undergraduate computer-game-science major with a curriculum rooted in computer science and rounded off with art, history and culture. In an era in which colleges are largely cutting back on curricula and disciplines, the school boldly pushes ahead.

“There were people who thought, ‘Why games? This is not something that should be taught at a major university,’” explains Magda El Zarki, a computer-science professor and the director of the center. “Why not? Games are becoming the technology used in education, medicine, job training. The U.S. Army uses games to train soldiers; surgeons and nurses use them to prepare for traumatic scenarios. They’re not just something teen boys play after-hours.”

Savvy students, born with controller-tapping thumbs, see opportunity in an industry that’s expected to generate a global revenue of $68.3 billion by 2012, according to data from PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ latest Global Entertainment and Media Outlook. The average salary for computer-game programmers last year was $80,320, not including bonuses and stock options that can add thousands more. The biggest-budget games can call for more than 100 developers and years of work.

The parents might still view what’s in front of them in disbelief, but the teens understand this isn’t a mere trend.

“That would be the same as saying books are a trend or movies are a trend,” says Justin Britch, a UCI freshman currently enrolled in the program. “It’s the next form of media that’s just going to keep growing. When people think of games, they think of, like, Xbox. But soon, it’s gonna be like, ‘Here’s a video game for teachers. Here’s a game to help people with depression.’”

Britch sits behind an information table with his friend and classmate Jon Lee. Both 18 years old and from Mission Viejo, they wear navy polo shirts embroidered with the game-science-major mascot, the spiky-haired main character from Colossal Crisis. The two discuss what led them to the discipline.

Britch, who knew he wanted to go into computer programming, says he’d long been interested in altering games, signing into online forums to learn how it was done.

For Lee, the direction was a surprising one. He considered careers in music and aerospace engineering before receiving in April a “life-changing” e-mail from the associate dean for student affairs at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences that informed prospective students, “Computer Game Science is a newly approved major that was not yet an option at the time you submitted your UC application.”

“It was the first thing that felt solid,” Lee says.

*     *     *

Standing next to a sliding white board, professor Dan Frost asks a question of his 155 students.

“What aspects of society led people to start playing video games?” His voice is loud and spirited.

A few students raise their hands. “Rich, white kids in suburbia who had nothing to do,” one young man replies.

Frost jots down “idle children” with a dry-erase marker, and then looks to the class for more thoughts.

“There was a greater need to achieve,” another student hypothesizes.

“Okay,” Frost says with interest. “So maybe only a small number of people can play piano at Carnegie Hall, but a lot of people can get to level 60 in World of Warcraft.”

Throughout the bright lecture hall in the Parkview Classroom Building near the center of Aldrich Park, more hands rise.

“People needed an escape.”

“Businesses wanted to make money.”

“Real life is boring.”

The course is Computer Games and Society, and before the students leave the day’s lecture, they watch a commercial for the new war game Call of Duty: Black Ops (the controversial television ad stars Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Kimmel with machine guns storming a city, while the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” howls on the soundtrack), and Frost assigns them homework: play an educational video game and critique it. The description of the introductory course—“the study and critical analysis of computer games as art objects, cultural artifacts, gateways to virtual worlds, educational aids, and tools for persuasion and social change”—gives pupils an early clue they won’t spend their study hours fighting off dragons and saving the princess.

“It isn’t a video-games-playing major,” Frost says. “It isn’t, ‘Let’s learn how to get to Level 99.’ It’s about giving students skills that can lead to a very good career.”

After understanding the history and culture behind computer-game technology and picking up some programming skills (everyone must learn the coding language Java), those in the major will move on to game-development courses such as world-building and multiplayer game systems, during which they’ll break into teams to develop original games.

“Students are so excited and energized,” says Frost, adding that he grew up playing chess and Monopoly. “This is part of their culture. This is the medium that speaks to them more than anything else.”

When video games emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, self-taught college students developed some of the most prominent titles. Having free access to mainframe computers, they would pluck away after-hours or during summer vacations. In 1975, Don Daglow, then a student at Claremont Graduate University, wrote the first computer role-playing game, Dungeon, based on Dungeons & Dragons. Kelton Flinn, a pioneer in online games, was a student at the University of Virginia when he co-created Air, an air-combat game that foreshadowed the hit Air Warrior.

But formal training was almost unheard of, and as the demand for increasingly sophisticated games grew, not just for computer systems but also in arcades and home consoles such as Atari and Nintendo, companies found a shortage of workers with the necessary skills. To counter this dilemma, the Vancouver-based animation firm DigiPen Corporation partnered with Nintendo in 1994 to open a training facility, the DigiPen Institute of Technology. It was the first post-secondary program in video-game programming to gain wide acclaim; DigiPen graduates were soon in high demand in the industry. The school proved so successful it eventually located to Redmond, Washington—home of Microsoft’s headquarters—and now offers several bachelor’s-degree programs, all focused on video games.

Still, academia wasn’t particularly quick to catch on. While UCI welcomed its first computer-game-development course in 1999, proposed and taught by Frost, the university was hesitant to adopt games as a permanent discipline. In 2000, Robert Nideffer, a studio art and informatics professor, proposed an undergraduate concentration in gaming studies, one that would incorporate computer-game development, digital arts, software engineering and artificial intelligence. It would have been the first interdisciplinary academic program of its kind at a top-tier North American research university.

But UCI’s review committee rejected the proposal, and Nideffer was perplexed. He’d worked with different schools within the university to develop the curriculum, garnering widespread support. “This was an interdisciplinary program to take a scholarly look at video games,” he told Wired magazine in 2002. “The skill sets translate into any number of things.”

The concentration was finally approved in 2005. The Weekly was unable to reach Nideffer for comment.

That initial resistance doesn’t surprise Jason Della Rocca, former executive director of the International Game Developers Association and founder of the game-industry consulting agency Perimeter Partners. The trade association hosts forums for academics and developers to converse and work to build stronger ties.

“The gatekeepers for validation are not gamers and do not understand the medium,” Della Rocca says. “Take Roger Ebert, who utterly dismisses games, and yet he personally fought many of the same battles for the ascendancy of film as art. Similarly, those in charge of approving new degrees often simply lack an understanding of games.” He adds that many of the old-school academics see game development as a vocational domain, but counters, “People take film studies, and not everyone ends up a film director.”

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.”

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.

*     *      *

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?’”

As part of UCI’s inaugural class in the computer-game-science major, Lee and Britch says it’s exhilarating, but also scary, to sort of feel like guinea pigs.

“We don’t really know what the outcome is gonna be,” says Lee. “I hope it doesn’t collapse on us.”

And then they go back to playing games.

mwoo@ocweekly.com

 

This story appeared in print as "Game On: While colleges across the country cut back on academic programs, UC Irvine banks big on computer games as an emerging discipline."

 

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