MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Computer programmers have been called nerdy, geeky, brainy, but here's a few new words for the industry: cool and wildly popular. More than 250 colleges and universities now are offering gaming degrees, and don't let the name fool you. Theyre about far more than video games.
NPR's Kathy Lohr reports on a new program at Georgia Tech in Atlanta that combines engineering, computer science, art and media.
KATHY LOHR: The augmented environments lab at Georgia Tech is bustling. Blair MacIntyre runs the lab and shows off some of the experiments. In one corner there's a room surrounded by wooden planks. A green screen covers the floor.
Mr. BLAIR MacINTYRE (Georgia Institute of Technology): And the idea here is to create the sensation that you're standing over a pit.
LOHR: And it works. When I put on the headset and entered the virtual world, I didn't think I had a fear of heights, but then oh, it really feels like you're up high, and you're not. I know you're not because I just saw this. Oh, I can't do that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MacINTYRE: It really is the kind of the combination of the kind of graphics you would see in a movie and a video game, but because you are in the world, it really feels more real.
LOHR: The idea behind this experiment is to measure a person's response to fear of heights and learn from it. Gaming is the biggest force driving this technology, but MacIntyre says many others use it, including the U.S. military and those in the medical field.
Mr. MacINTYRE: Can we visualize, by sensor information, like the CAT scans or MRIs, on top of the patient instead of on a little screen in the corner of the room, for maintenance and repair. So could you imagine getting an application from, say, GM when you buy your GM car. You install it on your iPhone, and when there's something wrong with your car, you look at your engine through your phone and it can help you figure out some basic repairs.
LOHR: Across the Georgia Tech campus, students learn how to design and program one of the first major gaming systems: the Atari.
Mr. IAN BOGOST (Professor of Digital Media, George Institute of Technology): All right, so now when I hold down the button, now we got, like, this sort of psychedelic like, we should put the stilts back on him now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BOGOST: It would be really, really hot.
LOHR: Professor of digital media Ian Bogost demonstrates how to make a crude chicken jump up and down on a screen. He gives students a background in gaming, knowing they will use the technology to solve all kinds of real-world problems.
Mr. BOGOST: We can apply them to journalistic pursuits, corporate learning. We can apply them to social action, social justice. So when we look at games and we teach about games, it's not just about the entertainment industry, although that's one aspect. It's really about the future of media much more broadly.
LOHR: Even with a sagging economy, colleges and universities across the country have added gaming programs in the hopes of attracting students.
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LOHR: Here, a group of Georgia Tech seniors works on a prototype game for the Xbox. Richard Shemaka started out as mechanical engineer but found gaming more creative and, he hopes, profitable.
Mr. RICHARD SHEMAKA (Student, George Institute of Technology): As a mechanical engineer, I was all about slide rules and multiplication tables here. And as soon as I got into computing, I just fell in love with it. I really love the logic behind it. I love just the sort of building-something-out-of-nothing sense that you get from it.
LOHR: Emily Cribb is also a senior and one of a few women in this program.
Ms. EMILY CRIBB (Student, Georgia Institute of Technology): Everyone's going to need their escape. Everyone's going to need their muse, and games provide an excellent source of that. And I want to be in there helping people feel inspired and, thus, being inspired in turn.
LOHR: The majority of undergraduate gaming programs have been developed over the past few years. Some people worry the industry will become saturated. But Joseph Olin, with the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, says there are no signs the appetite for gaming is waning.
Mr. JOSEPH OLIN (Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences): I don't believe that consumer interest in interactive entertainment is going to abate. If anything, it seems to be increasing each year.
LOHR: While universities figure out which courses to offer, most suggest there are still plenty of opportunities for creative students to find jobs with major companies or to make their own way in business, Web design or as independent game developers.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.