By Samantha Thompson

In the late hours of one Saturday night last January and into the next morning, hundreds of students gathered in a stifling, dimly lit room to stare into numerous luminescent screens.

The clamor of thumping background music blaring from speakers was coupled with echoing screams of victory and agitation. Many remained in the room for hours, leaving only to nourish themselves with a candy bar from vending machines nearby.

These are the gamers of UC Santa Cruz, and the curious scene is the fourth annual Porter College Video Game Tournament, where gamers come together for a night of individual tournaments for popular video games on all systems.

Erik Bursch, a 2006 graduate, actually returned to UCSC to compete in the tournament.

“Of course I came back for this,” Bursch said, after a successful three-hour session of Super Smash Brothers.

Until recently, avid video game fans were seen as part of a peculiar subculture, the kind of people who stay holed up in their basement for hours in an attempt to beat the newest game on the market. But within the last few years, video and computer games have exploded in the mainstream media and emerged as one of the most technologically advanced and powerful commodities around.

“It’s my understanding now that computer games as an entertainment source are on par, if not ahead, of the movie industry,” UCSC Professor of Computer Science Charlie McDowell said. “It’s huge.”

When the film Spider-Man 2 was released, it set an opening weekend record with $115 million in ticket sales. But when Microsoft released the second edition of its wildly popular Halo video game, it made over $125 million within 24 hours of its release.

At UCSC, the popularity of gaming lies not only in sitting in front of the screen, like at the tournament, but also behind it. Last fall, UCSC became the first University of California to offer a computer game design major within the department of computer science. The only other such program in the state was established at the University of Southern California, also in the fall of 2006.

“Like many things, it started with a hallway discussion amongst some of the professors in computer science, where we just started thinking about how there’s starting to be a growing interest in computer games,” said Jim Whitehead, associate professor of computer science. “We were also reflecting on the fact that many of the incoming students in computer science were choosing computer science mostly because they wanted to create computer games.”

Another motivation to develop the major was, as Professor McDowell pointed out, “to address what—at least at the time—were declining enrollments [in the computer science department], which was a nationwide trend, not just a UCSC phenomenon.”

Talk of the new major started only two years ago, but progressed rapidly.

During the process of creating the major, one of the biggest challenges was the creation of the curriculum and how to decide which aspects of computer science and game design should be the focus of the program.

Undergraduate computer game degree programs usually tend to fall within one of three categories: art-focused, technology-focused, or an even split between the two. The program at UCSC is centered on technology, and delves more into computer science topics, but also has courses on game design and digital media.

“It’s a huge, broad field in terms of the things you can do,” McDowell said. “There was a lot of debating and it took us quite a while to settle on what the requirements for the major are. You could just go off the deep end in terms of how many things you would really want a student to know.”

The program still needs fine-tuning, but has been successful in hiring highly-regarded faculty. The addition of Michael Mateas, a leading researcher in computer game artificial intelligence, cemented the program as a legitimate major.

“[With] the proximity of Santa Cruz to Silicon Valley, to the game studios, and with the interdisciplinary history that Santa Cruz has, that there are some real opportunities for growing,” Mateas said.

He continued, “The flavor of the kind of program we want to bring to Santa Cruz is something that’s really pushing what is currently done in games and taking it places it hasn’t been before.”

Professor McDowell noted that Mateas has been crucial in expanding the program.

“I think it was a big coup getting him here,” McDowell said. “He’s brought a lot of really good publicity to the program. And he brings a real credibility to it and we hopefully will, in the not too distant future, hire a couple more people to sort of round that out.”

Word about the unique program has definitely gotten out, reaching students all around the country.

“We did some outreach and got very good responses,” Computer Science Professor Alex Pang said. “The number of applicants for the game major has surpassed the number of applicants in [computer science]. And it’s just the first year.”

In the current UCSC admissions pamphlet, the center spread displays a sizeable plug for the new major as the first of its kind within the UC system.

Professor Whitehead has seen the effects of the publicity the major has received.

“A lot of the discussions [that admissions] had with high schools were [to tell] people about this program,” Whitehead said. “As a result, we had 321 freshman applicants for the major, which is pretty high for a brand new major. We also had about 20 some-odd transfer applicants as well, which is also pretty unusual.”

However, there was also skepticism among some faculty members from the get-go.

“[People asked] why games? The main, initial reaction was the perception of a research university offering a game major,” Pang said. “[But] it’s not just shoot-’em-up types of games. There are definitely a lot of opportunities for games to expand beyond just entertainment.”

Pang continued, “The main thing that needs to be overcome is this perception that games is a fluffy major. I mean, it’s a fun major, but there’s serious work behind it.”

Besides being a fun and entertaining field, game design and sales has become one of the most lucrative, as well.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, yearly computer and video game software sales have tripled in the United States since 1996, and now reach $7.4 billion.

“We’ve seen about $1,000 more per day than last year,” said Chris Leow, manager of the Capitola GameStop, the world’s largest video game retail chain. “We get shipments of the [Nintendo] Wii once a week and they sell out within five minutes to half an hour.”

And it’s not just your “typical” gamers who are contributing to the high numbers in sales.

Leow has seen how gaming has evolved “from being just something nerds do on occasion to a much more mainstream thing that everyone does.” Leow said he witnessed an 80-year-old grandmother waiting outside the store for the clock to strike 12 so she could purchase the newest add-on to World of Warcraft. She already had three level 60 characters—more than any of the kids in line.

Everyday, more people are playing and getting hooked on games that transport them to alternate realities.

Second-year student and avid gamer Justin Caraway gets in about an hour of gameplay everyday.

“[Video games] are a lot easier than life. They’re a lot more linear,” Caraway said. “Basically, you have one objective and you go do it. There are a lot of things [that you can do in video games] that you could never really do in life.”

Video and computer games are reaching all kinds of demographics and are finding their way into millions of homes.

In fact, Leow pointed out that the first commercial for Halo 3 aired during halftime of a Monday Night Football game.

“They didn’t use a station or a time aimed at typical gamers. They used Monday Night Football,” Leow said. “It’s been a growing industry and now it’s really taking off and getting people’s attention.”

At UCSC, students have generally responded well to the computer game design major.

First-year student Edwin Lopez Arbaiza, a self-described “big-time” gamer, came to UCSC to “join in on the action” and pursue the new major that he is currently taking classes in.

“It’s really good because although they’re not really game-related, you can actually try to piece [the classes] together to make them game-related,” Arbaiza said. “It’s really the interdisciplinary approach that attracts me.”

But while the major is attracting many gamers, there are some who would rather not mix their hobbies with their degree.

Caraway, who tied for first and second place in an all-night Halo 2 tournament at Crown, is one such person.

“I used to think about making [games], but it takes a lot of skills that I don’t want to work on,” Caraway said. “Writing codes––I’m not that much of a nerd.”

He continued, “I’d be interested in taking a couple classes and seeing what it’s like. But I don’t know if I could do that for a living. I’d much rather play.”