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Colleges offering video game courses and degrees

Monday, October 19, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — Menacing, metallic and mega-gun brandishing, the cyber super soldier looms over Richard Fleming's desk.

Not exactly stereotypical for a professor's office at Johnson County Community College?

Well, as the "Gears of War" crowd might say: "Eat boot! Suck pavement! Get back into your hole!"

This professor under the "Halo 3" figure teaches video game development. So lock and load, zappers of Nazi zombies or the locust horde. All those hours wearing out your thumbs in front of "Halo" or "Gears" actually could mean a college degree and fast career path.

Before you drop your joystick, remember a degree in video game design is math and science laden. Or it could involve serious art skills.

This year, 254 of the nation's colleges and universities in 37 states have such programs, up 27 percent over the year before.

At first, computer information science program leaders resisted bringing in video game courses, recalled Jeff Huff, assistant professor of graphics at Missouri State at West Plains.

"They didn't see them as worthy," Huff said. "It was real easy to dismiss it by saying, 'They are video games, how important could it be?' "

According to the Entertainment Software Association, which monitors the game industry, video game design is the fastest-growing industry in this country.

"A generation that has grown up playing video games is entering college," said Rich Taylor at the association. "Schools are responding to that."

Besides a favorite pastime, video games are developed for use in military training, education, Hollywood, and virtual training in a variety of fields, including medicine and mechanics.

"In the last 12 years, software sales have quadrupled," Taylor said, taking video game sales with it. Last year, games and game consoles reached $22 billion in sales.

At a time when students are graduating into a shrinking job market, this industry is flourishing, Taylor said.

More than 80,000 people are employed by the video game industry, Taylor said. "It is indicative of schools realizing that video game design is a viable industry."

Most of the schools with video game programs are in New York, Texas, North Carolina and California, with the University of California-Irvine recently establishing a center for games and virtual worlds research. The Midwest has its offerings too.

The Entertainment Software Association listed Johnson County Community College as the only school in Kansas with video game design degrees.

JCCC began drafting its two-year associate's degree programs in game development and animation in 2006 because that's what students wanted. The school had four to six classes that dealt with game programming.

At the time, Fleming and a colleague, Jeff Byers, who teaches animation, were adjunct professors. Now they run the degree programs, which have three other instructors teaching 63 classes for the 64-credit-hour game-developing degree and 47 classes for the 66-credit-hour animation degree.

"It has been steadily growing," Fleming said. They added four sections this year.

Technology is moving so fast that every year instructors at the Overland Park location of Johnson County update class curriculumula.

"As soon as we open a new animation section, it fills up within 24 hours," said Kelly Gernhart, the school's assistant dean of computer science and information technology.

Those with a flair for art and design who can create colorful characters and scenarios won't need the same level of computer science, but it is technology driven.

Video development provides the framework of the game — makes it operate — but, Fleming said, "it's not too pretty to look at." Developers can make a plane fly, dive and shoot, but they need an animator to design the plane.

Ben Mora of Olathe is in the second year of his video animation degree. Mora played a lot of video games in high school. Then he started drawing animations.

"I thought, I love animation, and I love video games; why not put them together?" Mora said.

The next step for JCCC is game development and animation students in the same classroom.

Among the schools that offer degrees and courses on the Missouri side are the University of Missouri, Missouri State at West Plains and ITT Technical Institute in Arnold and in Earth City.

A lot of schools began adopting video game design programs to offset the decline they saw in the number of students interested in the traditional computer information science courses, said Dale Musser, director of the information technology program at MU.

Musser's program is five years old and includes a sequence of video game creation courses. "That's one of the things that makes our program affective," Musser said.

When students go into computer science and information technology, they want to see what's familiar to them.

Taylor said 68 percent of people of all ages play video games, and 95 percent of young people play them. Video game consoles are in nearly 50 percent of the households in this country.

Graduates with a two-year associate's degree are ready on day one to enter the job market. Some take their video game degree to a four-year school for a bachelor's degree in computer science.

Out in the world, video game design is deemed recession resistant. And the pay is great.

The average video game designer job starting out pays about $55,000 a year. With five years of experience, young designers make in the range of $90,000 a year.

"And it is not a bad way to make a living," Taylor said. "It's fun, it's exciting and you are only limited by your imagination."


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