Video Game Programs Look for New Ways to Use Games

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This year, the University of Southern California enrolled its first class of undergraduate students who will major in video-game development. The school is not the first major university to have a program in video games. But the curriculum is not all about car races and shootouts.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some people must be following the old advice about making their living doing what they love. The University of Southern California, this year, enrolled its first class of undergraduate students who will major in video game development. The school is not the first major University to have a program in video games, and in fact, the number is growing. So is the belief that games can be more than car races and shootouts.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: What do you get when you cross a liberal arts education with the study of video games? Twenty-one-year-old Charles Mallison, who's getting his BA at the University of Southern California, has a good example. As part of a required class in his interactive entertainment, that is video game major, he's developing a game based on the battle of ideas.

Mr. CHARLES MALLISON (Student, University of Southern California): You're operating this small fledgling cult in a mall somewhere in suburban America. Your primary activities are converting mall goers, who are just wondering around the mall, into your cult.

SYDELL: As Mallison's discussion of his game continues it begins to sound increasingly like the game version of the literary criticism paper.

Mr. MALLISON: I would argue that it resembles basically all institutions in our society. I'm very much a poststructuralist. Basically, this is kind of a Michel Foucault video game.

SYDELL: Do you think this game will have commercial viability?

Mr. MALLISON: Absolutely not.

SYDELL: Game development, outside the commercial market is part of the point of the USC program, says Chris Swain, associate professor and co-director of the Game Innovation Lab. Swain says the major game publisher, Electronic Arts, helps fund the department because it's non-commercial.

Professor CHRIS SWAIN (Co-Director, Game Innovation Lab, USC): They were receptive to that idea because there are pressures in industry that keep them from really exploring some avenues that were interesting to explore, but in academia, where we have a little more freedom because we don't have the pressure to go out and sell a million units.

SYDELL: USC now has a 5-year-old MFA program and it's new BA degree in interactive entertainment. Both degrees are given through the school of Cinematic Arts. Undergraduate students in the program take basic liberal arts courses and classes in animation, game development, critical theory, and analysis of games.

(Unintelligible) may wonder if the study of games is worthy of a liberal arts degree, Associate Professor Tracy Fullerton looks back to 1929 when USC founded the first film school in the country. At the time, no one thought movies were serious art.

Associate Professor TRACY FULLERTON (School of Cinema-Television, USC): And now, of course, we recognize it as a powerful art form from the past century. I think we're looking at games and interactive entertainment, and seeing that potentially these can be the most powerful medium for the coming century.

SYDELL: Students in the program developed Darfur is Dying for MTV. In it, the player takes on the role of a refugee. Students also created the Cloud Game, which won several industry prizes. Fullerton explains it focuses on a boy stuck in a hospital who dreams of being able to fly in the clouds. He learns how and becomes a guardian of the earth, by moving the clouds into different formations.

Prof. FULLERTON: For example, one of the tasks in the game is, there's a volcano threatening an island city. You have to make a great, big, huge thunder and lighting storm and rain, and put out the volcano to save the people in the city. It's about balance in nature. It's about creating a game experience that is not typically aggressive and competitive.

SYDELL: Among the major universities that now have undergraduate or graduate programs in video game development, are Carnegie Mellon, SMU, and Georgia Tech. Scholarly interest in games has grown. That's according to Henry Lowood. He is the curator for the Science Technology Film and Media Collections at Stanford University.

Mr. HENRY LOWOOD (Curator, Science Technology Film and Media Collections, Stanford University): It's almost gone from a situation of scarcity to one where it's impossible to keep up with everything that's coming out. There's so much new work coming out on the cultural aspects of computer and video games, the social aspects. To some extent, the technology aspects.

SYDELL: That growing body of writing is a reflection of an expanding industry. Computer game sales have gone from $2.6 billion in 1996 to $7 billion in 2005. But a degree won't necessarily mean a job, says industry recruiter Jill Zimmer.

Ms. JILL ZIMMER (Video Gaming Industry Recruiter): All these big publishers, they're sending their recruiters out to the campuses, to try to recruit these college people and give apprenticeships and stuff like that. But still, so rare, they only take one or two.

SYDELL: While that's a thought that may worry parents, many students are motivated by idealism and a love of games. Jonie Chang is biology major who is minoring in games. She's designing one in which the player has to meet out medication and love to kids in the right dose.

Ms. JONIE CHANG (Student, University of Southern California): And it's basically a criticism about over-medicating kids in America, such as like Ritalin for ADHD kids.

SYDELL: Parents and educators who would like to see video games become less violent and more thoughtful, may be hopeful that the ideas of students like Chang will catch on in the commercial marketplace.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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