By Russ Megowan

A lot of people wish they could play video games for homework.

With the recent advent of the game design major at UC Santa Cruz, those who undertake the program can do just that. Jim Whitehead, associate professor of computer science and head of the game design major helped create the major to attract more people to computer science after the dot-com bubble burst around the year 2000.

“After the end of the dot-com era, enrollment in computer science dropped nationally,” he said. “At UCSC, enrollment dropped to a third of the levels that they were at the peak a few years before. There was concern in the computer industry that not enough people would study computer science to fulfill their needs. We decided that if we made a specialized degree for these students, we could attract more students to computer science.”

The major has proved far more popular than Professor Whitehead anticipated, attracting between 100 and 120 students this year. While the program focuses on computer science and math classes, game design students are also expected to take at least one class in another discipline, including theater, art or economics.

“My hope is that the game design major will have the same effect that the film studies major has had on film,” he said. “While it took a while for graduates of those programs to make films, some of our best directors came into the film industry with that training and we have seen a dramatic increase in the quality of movies because of it.”

At the moment, UCSC and the University of Southern California (USC) are the only four-year universities in the country that offer a game design major. But both schools’ programs differ dramatically. For third-year game design student Vinit Agarwal, the game industry tends to divide games into two categories: entertainment games and simulation games.

“Because USC has an emphasis on this dichotomy, I chose UCSC because I think the school sees games as art,” he said. “For someone who’s looking to make innovative games, they need a balance between entertainment and education.”

To ensure that students can apply their comprehensive education, the game design major requires students to make games throughout their four years at UCSC, culminating in a senior year project where teams of students spend the year making a substantial game.

“The strongest point of this major is that you’re actually making games and building a portfolio that reflects what you’ve learned, and [you’re] able to show that to companies that you may want to work for,” Vinit said.

Since many game companies desire employees with game industry experience, it’s still a struggle for those fresh out of college to get into a large company like Electronic Art (EA), even with a game design major under their belt.

But there are other options.

Local game company Chronic Logic represents the independent game industry, which has a lot of space for aspiring game designers, which gives them more freedom.

“As a small company, we definitely have creative control over our games which allows us to take risks,” said Josiah Pisciotta, a game designer at Chronic Logic. “Since big companies have big teams and budgets, they usually have to make games they know will be successful. Although indie games may not be so successful, they help push the envelope in terms of innovation and game design.”

Although you won’t find any of their games on the shelves of game retail stores, online distribution is gradually becoming more popular as it is much cheaper, making it possible for students to even start their own game company.

“Our goal is to make games that we enjoy because they’re fun to work on and we have a better idea of how to make them well,” Pisciotta said. “Because there’s much less cost involved since there’s no physical cost, the majority of games will eventually be purchased online through sites like Valve’s Steam, which sell both mainstream games and independent games,” Pisciotta said.

However, there is still room for innovation in the mainstream game industry.

“Many innovative games will come from the independent industry,” Pisciotta said. “But some mainstream companies like Sid Meier have renowned developers that are given a lot of freedom to do what they want, and they’ll likely make some good contributions.”

Regardless of whether game design students choose to work for an independent or major game company, Whitehead hopes that the major will improve the overall quality of games.

“In any artistic media, you need to have strong control over your tools in order to achieve the best possible artistic expression,” Whitehead said. “Having a technical background helps game designers understand the computational elements that are the foundation of video games and use that understanding to make excellent games.”