How about a BA in Quake?

US educational institutions are to offer advanced degrees in computer games. Is this a sign of the time?
Written by Jennifer Mack, Contributor on

"Your homework is to play Quake and then write about it." It sounds like an adolescent boy's dream come true, but this is no dream. Next autumn, students at the University of California (UC) at Irvine can begin taking courses in its newly announced Interdisciplinary Gaming Studies Program. It's the first step toward a "major" degree in gaming.

"Given the amount of money in the gaming industry, you don't really have the flexibility to take risks and do alternative stuff, to experiment more," said Robert Nideffer, an assistant professor at UC Irvine who heads the gaming program. "I think the university is about providing that kind of space."

The program incorporates courses in a variety of disciplines, including psychology, sociology, graphic design and human kinetics. The goal is to create students who are not only able to code and design games, but also have an understanding of the societal impact and significance of this $7bn (£4bn) industry.

"It really allows them to go into these industries with a more informed position," Nideffer said. "Hopefully that becomes attractive to potential employers, because you've got employees with a more interdisciplinary framework."

That kind of broad knowledge base is exactly what Paul Grace, vice president of software development at 3DO, a leading game manufacturer, says he's looking for in employees. During his 20 years in the gaming industry, he's watched it develop from teams of two or three developers working together on a project to groups of 15 to 30 people. A larger team requires members who are sensitive to the needs of different aspects involved in creating a game.

As a gesture of support for the UC program, game maker Alias/Wavefront has donated $1m (£620,000) in software. Alias founder, Mark Sylvester, said he chose to make the donation because it's important to begin studying gaming and its impact on society. "With the students being exposed to these ideas, they're thinking about this as a whole experience," Sylvester said.

Ultimately, Nideffer believes studying "gaming" will be considered just as legitimate as majoring in film or television studies. Several other universities have also begun to offer courses focusing on games, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and New York University, but UC Irvine is the first to take an interdisciplinary approach.

Like the rest of the high-tech industry, game manufacturers are currently facing a shortage of qualified workers. Carolyn Rauch, senior vice president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, said programs like the one being enacted at UC Irvine will help generate smart workers.

"It's a good thing for the industry," Rauch said. "It's really a reflection that video games have become a more important part of our culture."

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