OC Weekly : game on

UC Irvine’s New Computer-Games Major Gets Its Game On

The school is banking big on computer games as an emerging discipline

By MICHELLE WOO Thursday, Dec 9 2010

Open House Night remains a standard of American higher education, an opportunity for colleges and universities to convince prospective students and skeptical parents why their institutions are the best, why the parents should spend the next four to five years scrounging to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, why the student must enroll in that program and ignore the competition. Administrators and professors pull out all the proverbial stops to impress recruits, from spending thousands on glossy packets to name-dropping prominent alumni to offering tours of grandiose campus architecture and boasting about the assured millions in salary that will inevitably come after graduation.

But for UC Irvine’s computer-game-science major, the pitch is simple: computer screens. With computer games loaded onto them. There they are—take them.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, dozens of high-school seniors sat in front of computer screens at UCI’s Donald Bren Hall, clicking, clacking and staring, trying out the creations of current Anteaters.

One is entranced by Angry Hand of God, in which players become the ruler of the heavens and must strike things on Earth—cars, buildings, gas stations, mortals—with a lightning-bolt-shooting finger. Another furiously moves his mouse trying to guard an atomic nucleus under attack by dangerous radiation particles in the game Nucleon. Around the corner, a group stares with mouths half-open at a gleaming, multimonitor display showing Colossal Crisis; players are gathering various parts to build a robot that will take on a giant monster destroying the city.

In this game lab, one volunteer sits with a brainwave-reading apparatus hooked to his head, while another shows off a driving game that’s built like an ATV and can drive on real roads. As current students chat about the many games they’ve developed and designed—demoed on sleek, black, 40-inch flat-screen monitors lining the walls—wide-eyed parents stammer out words of awe.

“I can’t believe it!”

“We’re old!”

“This is the future!”

Their children, mostly messy-haired boys wearing untucked T-shirts and holding cans of Coke and Mountain Dew, smile and nod in shy approval. This is home.

Once seen on college campuses as a nerdy pastime that invaded residence halls late into the night, taking young scholars away from books, computer games are now considered a serious discipline, one that captures the interest of scholars across the globe and the deep pockets of the multibillion-dollar computer-gaming industry. As the medium expands to encompass everything from blockbuster epics to Angry Birds, UCI is trying to soar along with it, establishing the Center for Computer Games & Virtual Worlds, planning a Cyber-Interaction Observatory for faculty research, and—this fall—introducing an undergraduate computer-game-science major with a curriculum rooted in computer science and rounded off with art, history and culture. In an era in which colleges are largely cutting back on curricula and disciplines, the school boldly pushes ahead.

“There were people who thought, ‘Why games? This is not something that should be taught at a major university,’” explains Magda El Zarki, a computer-science professor and the director of the center. “Why not? Games are becoming the technology used in education, medicine, job training. The U.S. Army uses games to train soldiers; surgeons and nurses use them to prepare for traumatic scenarios. They’re not just something teen boys play after-hours.”

Savvy students, born with controller-tapping thumbs, see opportunity in an industry that’s expected to generate a global revenue of $68.3 billion by 2012, according to data from PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ latest Global Entertainment and Media Outlook. The average salary for computer-game programmers last year was $80,320, not including bonuses and stock options that can add thousands more. The biggest-budget games can call for more than 100 developers and years of work.

The parents might still view what’s in front of them in disbelief, but the teens understand this isn’t a mere trend.

“That would be the same as saying books are a trend or movies are a trend,” says Justin Britch, a UCI freshman currently enrolled in the program. “It’s the next form of media that’s just going to keep growing. When people think of games, they think of, like, Xbox. But soon, it’s gonna be like, ‘Here’s a video game for teachers. Here’s a game to help people with depression.’”

Britch sits behind an information table with his friend and classmate Jon Lee. Both 18 years old and from Mission Viejo, they wear navy polo shirts embroidered with the game-science-major mascot, the spiky-haired main character from Colossal Crisis. The two discuss what led them to the discipline.

Britch, who knew he wanted to go into computer programming, says he’d long been interested in altering games, signing into online forums to learn how it was done.

For Lee, the direction was a surprising one. He considered careers in music and aerospace engineering before receiving in April a “life-changing” e-mail from the associate dean for student affairs at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences that informed prospective students, “Computer Game Science is a newly approved major that was not yet an option at the time you submitted your UC application.”