Game for an education

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Where do video games come from? Or, more precisely, where will the next generation of video game developers come from? Until recently, people broke into the business by knowing someone, by themselves creating a variant of a current game or by becoming an intern at a games company. Such informal methods worked well while the market was in its infancy.

Now, however, as the $7bn games software industry prepares for the release of new consoles and handheld devices, video game companies are beginning to form partnerships with universities to produce the next generation of game designers. And some prospective designers are looking to such courses as a way of acquiring the skills to launch their own game businesses.

In March 2004 Electronic Arts, a games publisher and developer, donated $8m to the University of Southern California's School of Cinema and Television to fund a master's degree programme focused on video games. "If we don't start today, there will be a lot of kids with great ideas who won't be able to make that next big video game," says Russell Rueff, executive vice-president of human resources for Electronic Arts.

In December 2004, The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University graduated its first class of students with certificates in digital game development. Starting this autumn, the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, part of the University of Central Florida, will begin operations.

In January 2004, Full Sail, a Florida-based school of technology and entertainment, began offering a bachelor's degree in the entertainment business, with a specialism in games.

"The students who come here want to open their own company, or be a director or on the board. We offer a business curriculum, but it is integrated, so it's not just marketing or accounting. Everything is tied into the creation of a business plan," says Jennifer Hill, programme director of the entertainment business bachelor of science degree.

For games companies it is important to ensure a supply of trained people for both managerial and technical work. "To conceive a video game is one thing. We also need people able to put it together," says Perrin Kaplan, vice-president of marketing and corporate affairs at Nintendo, a games publisher and developer.

The Entertainment Technology Center at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University began offering a Masters degree in Entertainment Technology in 1999, while the Georgia Institute of Technology, which already had a bachelor and master of science degree in gaming, began offering a PhD in information design and technology in 2004. Such programmes, which offer various levels of academic and vocational content, share the common element of preparing people for the reality of the business of games: long hours, close teamwork and a relentless pressure to produce.

"Most game companies tell me that the first year of an employee's time is not effective because the staff must teach them everything they need to know. The idea of sending people to a place to be battle-hardened is very attractive," says J. Michael Moshell, director of the digital media programme at the University of Central Florida.

Teachers emphasise the difficulties of an entrepreneurial route to prospective and incoming students. "We would recommend students take a job with a company as soon as they finish school. If they go into a venture, it's a bit risky," says Jason Chu, chief operating officer of DigiPen Institute of Technology, a Redmond, Washington-based school affiliated with Nintendo.

Those bold enough to start up a games company require not only technical skills, but business knowhow.

"We go through the various business models, how to deal with profit margins, intellectual property, incorporation, market analysis, how to budget and negotiations. If someone's going to start their own company, these are the sorts of things they'd need to understand," says Bob McGoldrick, technical certification co-ordinator for the High Technology Institute of Austin Community College in Texas.

Linda Powers, director of human resources for games software company NCsoft, which works closely with Austin Community College, adds: "A lot of companies want people who are only passionate about games. That's good to have, but it needs to be balanced with an understanding of the business and what it means to bring something to market."

Yet companies may have different expectations of the required skills of games degree graduates. "We don't train people to be worker bees, we are training them to the best of their potential. We train them in getting their ideas made," says Tracy Fullerton, visiting assistant professor at USC's School of Cinema-Television.

And in a business where sequels, sports and war titles are ubiquitous, new ideas are not always the ones that get made. As Ian Bogost, assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, puts it: "Often you go into a game store and it is like going to a movie house and finding that the only movie available was starring Steven Seagal."

The eventual hope is that, with the help of universities, games can reach the potential so many see in them. "To me, the interactive media [gaming] is going to be the preferred mode of human expression in the 21st century, akin to the book and radio," says SMU's Dr Peter Raad.

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