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Getting a degree in 'Mortal Kombat'

University programs aimed at studying and developing video games are popping up with increasing frequency.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
Like other colleges around the United States, the University of Denver saw enrollment in computer science courses slide precipitously over the past few years.

Unlike some others, the school came up with a remedy that seems to be working: games.

Last year, the Denver school became one of the first four-year universities in the United States to open an undergraduate major in game development, by merging elements from the school's computer-science and design programs. Applications already are up, and other undergraduate institutions are following suit, preceded by a handful of graduate-level programs with a similar focus.

The trend has been met with some resistance, both from traditional computer scientists and university administrators who see games like "Mortal Kombat" and "Halo 2" as strictly entertainment. But that skepticism is passing, say academics who have devoted attention to the subject.

"It's like the film industry back in 1930s and 1940s, when the first film schools were established," said Associate Professor Scott Leutenegger, who heads the University of Denver's program. "That was not taken seriously. Now everyone thinks those programs are great."

Universities' burgeoning interest in computer and video games may be as powerful a sign of the medium's maturation as are the tens of billions of dollars now made by the industry every year. Mario and Lara Croft have long been comfortably ensconced in popular culture, but they're now moving off the floor of industry shows like this week's massive E3 conference in Los Angeles to join James Joyce and Orson Welles in the academic curriculum.

The relationship between colleges and game companies desperate for talent nevertheless remains an uncertain one.

On one side are academics who are eager to bring their own brand of analysis and research to the table, studying games and gamers' behavior as cultural or anthropological phenomena. A recent conference discussion on the issue saw several professors avowing their independence from the strictly practical needs of industry, while saying their research could nevertheless help designers.

For example, a group of game researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, teach from inside the curriculum-and-instruction department, and largely study how games can be used in learning. Other researchers study topics ranging from the economics of multiplayer games to the demographics and sociology of gaming.

"Our school is not in position of turning out people for industry," said Kurt Squire, an assistant professor at Wisconsin's Madison campus and a veteran of a similar education-focused program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's not what we do, it's not what we want to do."

Feeding companies' needs
On the other side are more practical programs such as Leutenegger's. It is these that are beginning to spring up in ever-greater numbers, both at trade and arts schools and at bigger universities.

Curriculum typically falls into categories of programming, design and art. Some schools allow students to focus in one of these areas-?indeed, some companies say they prefer job candidates who are expert at just one specialty

rather than experienced at all three--while some try to teach students the entire range of skills.

The schools are hampered by the ever-increasing cost of producing games. Most institutions, for example, can't afford the high software-development kit fees charged by Microsoft and Sony--which typically are in the $20,000 range--in order to have their students work directly on Xbox or PlayStation systems.

Students will typically work on PCs, instead. Todd Robinson, lead faculty member for the San Francisco Academy of Art University's game program, said his students have tools that simulate the output of the commercial game systems in order to gain experience developing for the consoles.

Leutenegger said he has words of warning for students, too. The business of game making, after all, is a far cry from an afternoon in front of a PlayStation.

"I caution incoming students on a couple of things," he said. "This is an industry with high burnout rates, long hours and incredibly tight deadlines. I tell them that in a couple of years, many of likely to change their mind about what they want to do."

For the most part, companies are eagerly encouraging this type of hands-on academic program. Last year, Nintendo sponsored a five-year professorship at Seattle's DigiPen University, which was the first school in the country to offer a four-year degree in game development, and has placed a number of students to the Japanese company.

Smaller companies, while still optimistic about the programs, have less experience with games graduates. NC Austin, a division of Korea's largest game maker, NCsoft, says it has consulted with local colleges about developing game curriculum, but has yet to hire anyone directly out of the programs.

"The challenge we find is creating openings that don't require firsthand experience," said NC Austin Director of Human Resources Linda Powers. "Our pace is so fast that we haven't found ourselves with that luxury. But my impression is that they're doing the right things."