April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Help Wanted: How to turn a passion for gaming into an exciting career | The Gaming Life

Computer and video game development and design is a rapidly growing career field. According to the Entertainment Software Association (theesa.com), video game software sales in 2009 reached $10.5 billion. And the good news for students contemplating gaming-related careers is that 300 colleges, universities, and technical schools in the United States now offer programs and courses in video game design and development. There is a wide variety of different career paths available in the gaming industry as well as in the business community, the health and medical fields, government, and more.

Every day, students spend hours after school at the library playing video games on the computer or on their own handheld device. They might even talk about how they would like to design games themselves. Librarians and teachers can play an important role in introducing students to the possibilities of a career in gaming.

The librarian’s role

Many avid gamers often don’t connect their favorite pastime with a career opportunity. Librarians can help students learn more about video gaming and develop their skills. Gamer web sites and blogs are a great way to learn about the gaming industry. Many libraries have access to free blogging software such as Word Press (wordpress.com) or Blogger (blogger.com). Help students who are interested in designing games by introducing programs such as Scratch (scratch.mit.edu) so they can get a feel for game engine development. Peer teaching at the library is a great way for students to help librarians develop gaming programs as well as learn leadership skills that are important for any career.

In 2005, Global Kids (globalkids.org), a non-profit organization in New York City that works with urban youth to give them the skills they need to succeed, received a grant from the Microsoft Corporation to design an after school game development program which they named Playing 4 Keeps (olpglobalkids.org/gaming). The teens in the program met for two hours a week over the course of the school year and developed Ayiti: The Cost of Life, a game about a family in Haiti experiencing poverty. They also visited a game design office, went to a gaming conference, poured over game developer magazines, and visited a History of Games exhibit at a museum. While most libraries might not receive funding to embark on such a robust game development program, Playing 4 Keeps just might inspire librarians to attempt a similar project on a smaller scale, such as designing a simple game with free software or inviting a game designer or writer to speak at the library.

Aligning games with curriculum standards can help increase the dialogue between teachers and students around gaming and open new pathways for students to explore. There are a myriad of wonderful games that can be integrated into the curriculum, and a number of them have been suggested by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA). For example, Nintendo’s Super Mario Sunshine is a fun game that teaches players how to improve the environment and live a green life. SimCity (Electronic Arts) builds problem-solving and analytical skills. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and Escape Hatch Entertainment developed Immune Attack (fas.org/immuneattack) that teaches students in grades 7 to 12 concepts in biology as they try to save a patient with a bacterial infection. Discover Babylon (fas.org/babylon) teaches middle schoolers about Mesopotamia’s ancient city states.

“Apps for Healthy Kids” was launched in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity. Software developers, game designers, and students were called on to develop applications and games to encourage kids to eat healthier foods and be more physically active. The first place winner was “Pick Chow” (zisboombah.com/pickchow), a tool where meals can be assembled on a virtual plate and receive a star rating based on the meal’s healthiness.

Gaming as a college major

With so many colleges offering degrees or programs in video game design and development, Rich Taylor, Educational Software Association’s senior vice president for communications, said that “These new college programs underscore the importance of the video games industry, which is well-poised to create additional employment and professional opportunities in the coming years” (ccweek.com/news/?z=7&a=1724).

Marc Tucker, on the faculty of the Simulation and Game Design program at the Central Piedmont Community College (cpcc.edu/sgd) in Charlotte, NC, cautions students to be aware that careers in game development are fun but very difficult and time intensive. It’s not just about playing games. He says that students should ask themselves if they are really passionate about games, have great ideas, and have the drive to work harder than they can imagine. He advises high school students who want to pursue a gaming career to make sure that the college they choose offers a degree program and not just a certificate and that there are more than ten classes dedicated to simulation and game development. He stresses the need for a well-rounded education that also includes core subjects: “Math is important in programming because it involves functions and algebra. The better you are at math the more complex your programs can be. Science is important because you need to understand physics, such as gravity and friction, as well as biology for animation and modeling. History is important because research into a specific area of history, such as World War II or the Old West, may be necessary. Classes in English are also important because documentation is a large part of game development. The ability to clearly define your ideas and designs on paper is paramount to being successful.”

Tucker recommends putting learning into context by “going to museums, art galleries, sporting events, and concerts to observe what is going on around you. Gather inspiration from the way people move, talk, and interact with others and observe the way an artist depicts his ideas differently than you would. Don’t forget to play games too. When playing games, pay attention to everything that works and everything that doesn’t, and take an idea and try to make it your own. Don’t copy it, just use it for inspiration. These are some great things to be able to do before starting the program.”

DigiPen Institute of Technology in Washington (https://www.digipen.edu/) offered the first Bachelor’s degree in video game programming in North America. The institution also provides educational opportunities for middle through high school students to get their feet wet in such areas as video game development, 3D animation, game design, and robotics technology. More information about DigiPen’s ProjectFUN workshops can be accessed at projectfun.digipen.edu. Students considering a college major in video gaming should read a recent article by Matt Helgeson, “Thinking About Attending a Video Game School? Read This First” (gameinformer.com/b/news/archive/2010/12/26/thinking-about-attending-a-video-game-school-read-this-first.aspx), in which he interviews Raymond Yan, the COO of DigiPen, about “some of the misconceptions students have about the industry and what it really takes to be successful in video games.”

The curriculum for a degree program in computer game design is varied and intensive. Among the courses are math, physics, game design, computer game engineering, digital media, art, music, economics, theater, and film. Many community colleges offer some of these classes which is a good way to save on tuition for students who are not yet committed to a particular focus. Among the hundreds of institutions offering college degrees in gaming are the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of Texas at Austin, Westwood College (FL), New England Institute of Technology (RI), EmpireCollege (CT), DeVry University (in 11 states), DigiPen Institute of Technology (WA), University of Southern California Interactive Media Division, Drexel University (PA), Becker College (MA), and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (NY).

For more complete information, the 50 best college game design programs have been compiled by GamePro magazine and Princeton Review (princetonreview.com/game-design.aspx). Additional information is available from U.S. College Search (uscollegesearch.org/gaming-colleges.html), and the Entertainment Software Association also has a list of schools offering video game degree programs (theesa.com/gamesindailylife/schools.asp).

Kelly Czarnecki is the technology education librarian of ImaginOn, a collaborative venture between the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County and the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, NC, and SLJ’s Gaming Life column editor.