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THE WORK OF PLAY

Mom, I want to major in video games

Parents may think it's a joke, but schools are serious -- and the field is seriously lucrative.

October 20, 2008|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

The Thukrals wanted their son, Dhruv, to go into nanotechnology. So when he told them he'd rather be a video game developer he might as well have said he wanted to join the circus.

"Are you serious?" they asked.

He was. The 21-year-old USC graduate student proved it by switching the focus of his computer science doctorate from a field known as distributed systems to video game programming.

He then launched a campaign to convince his parents back home in New Delhi that helping people have fun was not only a legitimate career but also lucrative. He peppered them with articles about the growth of the video game industry, which is expected to generate global revenue of nearly $50 billion this year. He also sent them stock charts and annual reports of some of the industry's top companies.

They relented.

"Awareness is growing, and more students are interested," said Thukral, who in 2004 became one of the inaugural students in USC's graduate program for video game development. "Computer science can be fun."

Game design has helped rekindle interest in computer science and become a hot new major at more than 200 schools across the country, according to the Entertainment Software Assn., a trade group. Because making games crosses several disciplines, the diversity of programs that offer such courses is staggering: Fine arts colleges, engineering schools, film schools, music schools and even drama programs are sending graduates into the fast-growing industry.

"Some programs throw a drama guy together with a programming guy to see what they come up with," said Bing Gordon, a venture capitalist and former chief creative officer for industry powerhouse Electronic Arts Inc. "Games is the ultimate interdisciplinary art."

When video games began to emerge in the late 1970s and early '80s, their creators tended to be computer hobbyists working out of bedrooms and garages.

Now, game companies recruit armies to work in studios all over the world. They invent characters, write dialogue, compose music, create lavish digital scenes and write the software that rules these fantasy worlds. A blockbuster game can require more than 100 developers, each working for two or more years, to complete.

"Just like everything else, universities are about following the money," said Jessie Schell, who teaches game design at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center in Pittsburgh.

Colleges really began to take notice about six years ago, when the game industry's sales started to rival movie box-office receipts, Schell said. Since then, he said, there's been a "great boom" in the number of programs cropping up to train future developers.

One of them is Ex'pression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville, Calif. Founded in 1999 to teach computer graphics and sound design for the movie industry, the school decided to create a separate course for video game designers last year after seeing so many of its graduates jump into the profession.

Because the field of study is so young, there is little agreement among schools over the proper curriculum. Gordon, the industry veteran, said the better programs tended to emphasize teamwork among students with different skills.

"It's mind-bending technology, combined with clever game design, combined with glorious artwork, combined with beautiful audio," Carnegie Mellon's Schell said. "There's no one person on the team who can do it all. We think of it like team inventing."

USC takes a similar tack. In May, students from the university's computer science, film, music and art programs gathered to show off their game projects to a standing-room-only crowd of about 60 industry recruiters. One was Matt Coohill, creative director of Digital Domain, a visual effects company in Venice that's branching into games.

"The skills they teach here fit perfectly with what we're trying to do," Coohill said.

USC's games program has boosted interest in the school's computer science department, said Mike Zyda, director of the USC GamePipe Lab, which hosted the event.

When Zyda came to the university in 2005 to organize a games curriculum in the engineering school, the computer science department counted 52 students taking three game development courses. This spring, the department taught 379 students in 18 game development classes. Some of the students come from USC's other departments, such as the School of Cinematic Arts, which created its own game program for graduate students in 2002.

The surge in interest has led schools to add games to their menu -- but not always to the benefit of its students. Recruiters say they often see "mills" that run around-the-clock sessions to quickly churn out as many students as possible. Other programs teach specific skills but not how games are pulled together.

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