Arizona’s leaders aren’t thinking about video games when they talk of enticing high technology firms to the state.
Nevertheless, Arizona State University is sketching plans for classes and camps so students can study the electronic art of game design, in the hope of grabbing the Valley a piece of the $11-billion-a-year industry.
Game designers have long been the renegades of computer engineering, more likely to have dropped out of high school than to have finished a doctorate. Today, 30 years after the Atari 2600 hooked a generation on Pac-Man, the field is seeking old school respectability to match its cash flow.
“If your company’s made up of people who predominantly don’t have any degrees, even though they’re really good at what they do, it kind of reflects out on your discipline and professionalism,” said Ashish Amresh, an Arizona State computer science lecturer.
ASU is among the first in higher education to offer its services.
The university’s first step is a summer camp for high school students, which the School of Computer Science and Informatics is hosting next month. Amresh said the camp, modeled after a New York University program, simulates the experience of working for a game design firm.
Twenty-five teenagers will be assigned to teams and, during the six-week-camp, are expected to create their own working games. The students are not required to have design experience, but Amresh said many of them have taught themselves the basics.
The most devoted video game players do far more than just play, they “mod,” or modify. Consoles, like Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, can be altered to play games designed for other systems. Players often rewrite games’ code, the foundation of digital life, to add whole new levels.
When the camp begins June 18, the students will be divided into two groups — artists and programmers. Then, Amresh said he and the other teachers will assign the campers to game development teams.
For ASU, the camp helps create a pipeline of potential college students who might choose to study at the university. In the fall, Amresh is teaching a class on basic game design.
Arizona State students might eventually be able to work toward a certificate focused on building video games, said Carol Behl, assistant director of the computer science school.
Only two U.S. research universities — the University of Southern California and the University of Central Florida — now have degree programs for future game designers.
Electronic Arts, the industry’s largest game firm, in the past few years donated millions of dollars to found or greatly enhance both. The pioneers of electronic gaming in the 1970s and 80s had no university program that could teach them what they wanted to learn.
“So maybe school didn’t interest them as much as just getting their hands in hacking or working on games,” said Tracy Fullerton, co-director of the video game innovation lab at the University of Southern California.
Many within academia were slow to embrace the increasingly popular art form.
Video game critics have blamed the medium for myriad social problems, including a rise in youth violence and shrinking attention spans.
Grisly first-person shooter games — in which the player’s goal is to gun down all those in their path — should not define the entire industry, Fullerton said. Computer engineering professors also worried game design would involve only technical skills, like those offered at trade schools.
However, today’s design students are changing the definition of a video game.
“Anyone who thought we were going to make a bunch of shooters was concerned,” Fullerton said. “But if you look at games like Darfur, Flow or Cloud or any of the games we’ve been making, they’re like, ‘Oh, these guys really are studying what the possibilities are.’ ”
Jenova Chen, a graduate of USC’s program, created Flow as the thesis for his master’s degree on creating games that enhance players’ feeling of happiness.
The player guides a small creature toward food, and the creature evolves as it eats. In the coming years, ASU students might influence where games go next, Amresh said.
“This could be a central place where people come for gaming education.”