At work at play stations

Some universities are tailoring curricula to develop designers, wedding tech and storytelling skills.

By Susan Carpenter
LA Times Staff Writer
November 24, 2005

When high schoolers say they want to grow up and build video games, Steve Seabolt has a pat response: "You don't get to make video games by playing video games," says the vice president of university and marketing education at Electronic Arts, the world's No. 1 video game maker. "You make video games by studying really, really hard."

These days, students with an interest in video game development have more options than ever to study really, really hard, thanks to a growing number of interactive media programs that bridge the gap between academia and the $25-billion video game industry. Over the past few years, dozens of top-notch colleges and universities have set up gaming labs and forged interdisciplinary programs, offering bachelor's and master's degrees in "integrated media," "game engineering" and "interactive entertainment."

As convergence becomes the predominant trend in media, the same is happening at many schools, which are breaking down barriers to merge formerly segregated disciplines. Among the best programs: Georgia Tech in Atlanta; the University of Central Florida in Orlando, which just unveiled its Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy; Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center in Pittsburgh, which is co-directed by two professors — one in computer science, the other in drama; and the University of Southern California, which offers bachelor's and master's degrees in interactive entertainment through its School of Cinema-Television. Anyone looking for a glimpse into the creative leadership of tomorrow's video games might want to peek inside the gaming lab at USC. What's in the works there bears little resemblance to what's hot now: sports and fantasy titles.

In an upstairs room at the school's Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts, students in the interactive entertainment MFA program display their works in progress on 15 projection screens ringing the room. Among them are Susana Ruiz's cartoon images for a project based on the 1994 Rwandan genocide and Andrew Sacher's interactive confessional booth for technology addicts. "Our program thrives on students having multiple passionate backgrounds and they inevitably come up with wacky stuff," says Scott Fisher, chair of the interactive media division, founded in 2002. Last year, the program got a major boost when Electronic Arts, maker of popular sports titles such as Madden NFL and FIFA, donated $8 million to create the EA Game Innovation Lab and develop the interactive entertainment program.

This spring, Fisher graduated his first class of six students; now there are 31 more in the master of fine arts program and six others on the undergraduate track, launched this year.

Next fall, USC's school of engineering will also begin bachelor's and master's programs in "computer science (game development)," and students in the arts and engineering programs will share some classes as well as collaborate.

Collaboration is key at Carnegie Mellon as well. "Our curriculum is built around getting people to learn more about how to work together," says Randy Pausch, co-director of the school's Entertainment Technology Center, which has contracts with top video game developers Electronic Arts and Activision Inc. to hire the program's graduates. Carnegie's ETC, launched in 1999, evolved out of discussions with entertainment companies about their disinterest in hiring from college campuses. "The answer we got back is, it's not like the artists didn't have the art chops or that computer scientists didn't have the programming chops," Pausch says. "What they didn't have is the ability to work in interdisciplinary teams. As one guy put it bluntly: 'That's why we want them to work for our competition for five years.' "

Video game development is highly complex. It's right-brain people working with left-brainers to merge storytelling, character development and animation with increasingly sophisticated and ever-changing technologies. Students who want to succeed in the real world need to hit the ground running, and these programs are designed to give them that practical experience. They aren't just churning out code jockeys to program games; their goal is to develop leaders who can see the big picture. Gaming companies used to recruit from within the industry. But as more university programs come online with interactive entertainment curricula, that's changing. "Before, the typical education didn't prepare them for what they would encounter here. Now a lot of universities are addressing the fact that game development is a legitimate path," says Kate Paneno, manager of university relations for Activision, maker of the popular Spider-Man games. This year, she's hired 40 new grads.

"If you look at the games sector, what you see historically is they've hired two groups of people: programmers and graphic artists. But games are becoming a storytelling and entertainment medium. Neither of those groups have the vocabulary to talk to each other very well because they come from much different worlds," says Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a program that doesn't have a formal game-design component but frequently places graduates in the industry. "We're training technologists to think like entertainers."

Jenkins is one of many university professors who draw the comparison between today's emerging interactive entertainment curriculum and the film schools that emerged in the '70s. "The Spielbergs and Lucases, what was different about them coming through film school rather than the ranks … is they understood every part of the film production process. They weren't technical skill people but they had a conceptual framework that allowed them to bring all the pieces together. "In the same way film schools changed Hollywood," Jenkins adds, "game studies will change the games industry."