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Game Plan

Members of WPI's Game Development Club do a little firsthand research. From left, Chris St. Pierre '06, Sara Pickett '07, Darren Torpey '04, Darius Kazemi '05, and Brendan Perry '07.

WPI arms students for the videogame wars and prepares a new weapon: a dedicated major

By Jimmy Guterman
Photography by Patrick O'Connor

Editor's Note: Since this article was published, the WPI faculty formally approved the Interactive Media and Game Development (IMGD) major, to begin formally in the fall of 2005. Visit the IMGD Web site for detailed information about this exciting new academic program.

Walk through an all-male, or mostly male, residence hall. It's loud, of course. You hear young men shouting, playing games, letting off steam, having fun. "Take that!" one yells. Another curses his defeat even more loudly. A third laughs heartily.

But if you're a resident advisor, like Richard Vaz, professor of electrical and computer engineering, you'll notice one other thing: most of the interaction is virtual. Few of the students making the commotion are in the same room with each other. "A culture can form where videogames become not a diversion but the primary means of interaction," Vaz says. "I've gone down the hall and seen room after room of guys playing games with guys in other rooms."

Like it or not, you're looking at the future. Got Game, an upcoming book from Harvard Business School Press, maintains that for corporations to succeed in the coming decades, they'll have to understand the mindset of a generation of young adults who see videogames as their preferred entertainment medium. Depending on which recent survey you believe, 60 to 80 percent of college-age men and 40 to 50 percent of college-age women play videogames more than 12 hours a week. And a residence hall full of personal computers connected to a high-speed network is fertile ground for energetic multiplayer gaming.

But videogames are important for another reason. They represent a burgeoning science-based industry offering students a chance to work where many of them already play. According to the latest figures from investment bank Wedbush Morgan Securities, the videogame industry took in $27 billion worldwide last year (half of that in the United States) and is expected to grow 19 percent per year for the next three years. As some areas of technical development--such as building and running Web sites--have grown less glamorous, game development has become an even more attractive career opportunity.

Which is one reason WPI is fast becoming more than a bit player in the videogame world. With its diverse, project-based curriculum, the university is already an incubator with a strong track record for placing graduates into interesting positions in the industry. It is home to the three-year-old, 60-member Game Development Club, the fastest growing new student society on campus. And this fall, the faculty is expected to vote on a proposal by five professors from both computer science and humanities and arts to develop an interdisciplinary major program in Interactive Media and Game Development (IMGD).

"The hardest thing to do when you're making a game and the most rewarding thing to do if you've pulled it off is create something that lets people suspend disbelief and enjoy themselves."

Being an industry incubator means WPI can accomplish other goals as well. A reputation as a game-savvy school makes it attractive to a whole new constituency of young people. And as a university committed to making science work for the greater social good, it can address critics' concerns about videogame violence and isolationism (some detractors say, for instance, that time spent pressing buttons in virtual-sport games would be better spent playing real sports) and be a positive influence on the field and those who enter it.

There are games that teach new skills, help persons with disabilities, and empower people in numerous ways. These are not "take your medicine" games--they teach without losing a bit of their fun. The most popular PC game ever is "The Sims," in which success is measured not by body count but how well a player does at initiating and sustaining relationships. Last year, WPI's Game Development Club picked up on this spirit of useful fun and built "MassBalance," a game that helps citizens contemplate the trade-offs necessary to balance Massachusetts' budget [see Transformations, "Inside WPI," Summer 2003].

Nicholas Baker '03 exemplifies the kind of consci-entious, humanistic scientist that WPI produces. As an undergraduate, Baker's nontechnology double-major subject was philosophy, which is what he says got him interested in developing games with more social value. He is now attending Liverpool John Moores University as a Marshall Scholar, creating games that let players make moral choices about contemporary social problems.

One of his games simulates a street protest. "You're the leader of the demonstration," he explains by phone from Liverpool. "During the game, the protesters go from happy to frustrated to angry. You can get public-support points if you lead the demonstration without incident. Police are involved, too. You can talk to the police to stop them from arresting protesters, but there's potential to be physically attacked by them. Or you can choose the violent option."

There's No "I" in Team

Michael A. Gennert, head of WPI's Computer Science Department and associate professor of both computer science and electrical and computer engineering, helped put together the proposal for the new major. "We're looking for something new and exciting to bring in new students. A major like Interactive Media and Game Development certainly meets that requirement," he says. "Think about it: videogame development requires the mastery of many areas. It's not quite computer science, but it involves computer science. It's not quite humanities and arts, but it surely involves humanities and arts. We want something that will have an impact."

The interest in a major started with the faculty but grew when they started discussing it with students. "The students had many helpful comments and insights," Gennert says. "They suggested we go out and get corporate sponsorship of our lab for this program. They had ideas on how we might cover the philosophy and psychology of games. And they made clear how important portfolios were to students."

WPI's move toward establishing the game major is a natural extension of the school's existing strengths. "There are plenty of ways for students to get involved with game development right now at WPI," says Mark Claypool, a computer science faculty member behind the proposal for the major program. "Also, as part of their senior projects, undergraduates have a chance to get involved in some cutting-edge research. The major is very much in the WPI tradition, very much a project-based curriculum."

As an associate producer at Sonalysts, which specializes in military simulation games, Jamie Carlson '99 helps bring together and guide the teams of specialists, from programmers to designers to marketers, who are needed to produce a successful game.

Jamie Carlson '99 of Connecticut-based Sonalysts, which makes military-simulation games, concurs. "The most helpful thing at WPI for someone entering the videogame industry is the way the curriculum works," he says. "The project plan is team-based and emphasizes collaboration. Teams and collabo-ration--that's what making a videogame is all about."

Carlson, an associate producer, is currently working on "Dangerous Waters," the company's fourth game. (Producers are the crucial utility infielders at game companies. They have to bring strong programming, design, and project management skills to projects and often serve as the glue between specialist teams.) "The hardest thing to do when you're making a game and the most rewarding thing to do if you've pulled it off is create something that lets people suspend disbelief and enjoy themselves," he says. "It's great working with a team to do that."

Still, a decade ago an interest in games meant having to carve out one's own niche in the curriculum, says Christopher Dyl, who attended WPI from 1990 to 1995. "I went for physics at WPI. I also studied mechanical engineering and computer science, but a lot of what I learned about game development I learned on my own as a kid." The vice president of technology for Turbine Entertainment Software of Westwood, Mass., a leading purveyor of games that thousands of people can play online simultaneously, remembers being part of a team at WPI that wrote a 3-D modeling program.

"It was extremely primitive, but it taught me what I was interested in and let me discover how much I enjoyed computer programming," Dyl says. "And all those physics simulations I did at WPI--all that visualization work was applicable to games. I started working for Turbine while I was still at WPI, and I'm here going on 10 years now." The company's biggest current hit is "Asheron's Call," although its "Middle-Earth Online," built around J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga, is due out next year and is expected to be a smash.

Work for Fun

Developing hardware that keeps pace with the demands of today's high-end games is the concern of Chris Bentley '96 (M.S.), Macintosh 3-D project team leader at ATI Technologies, a top producer of graphics products for personal computers.

WPI's broad curriculum has been another springboard into the videogame business. Chris Bentley, who received a master's in computer science in 1996, came to WPI having studied philosophy and English and having taught junior high. Today he is the Macintosh 3-D project team leader in the Marlborough office of ATI Technologies, a top Canadian producer of graphics products for PCs. As such, Bentley is in the vanguard of hardware developers building the foundation for today's high-end games. It's a tug-of-war between the game-makers and the makers of computer graphics cards, like ATI; each forces the other to increase capabilities. Bentley's job is to ensure that the company's Mac products can handle anything thrown at them. "The broad curriculum at WPI definitely helped me get to ATI and succeed here," says Bentley, who is part of a large WPI contingent at the company.

Game Development Club member Steve Gargolinski '05 is interning as a programmer for Blue Fang Games in Waltham, maker of "Zoo Tycoon," published by Microsoft, which has sold more than 1.4 million copies. "At WPI, I picked up a lot of the skills I need to be a good games programmer. Because producing good animation is dependent on knowing matrices, my classes in linear algebra and [the programming language] C++ were essential," Gargolinski says. "They teach you how to solve problems, which is what being a videogame programmer is all about, whether I do it for fun or for work." He expects to work full time at Blue Fang upon graduation.

Gennert says supporting students like Gargolinski with a bona fide major is but one of Interactive Media and Game Development's virtues. "We also want to be seen as a school that is doing interesting things for those students who are not currently choosing WPI," he says. Namely, women. "There's a national trend of women moving away from enrolling in science, engineering, and computer science in the same ratio as in other disciplines, with the exception of biology," he explains. "We think this program will be more attractive to them and bring them in. The major would have two tracks, technical and artistic, so students can emphasize the area that's more important to them. But what's crucial is that whichever track they're on, there are common core courses, including critical game studies, the game development process, and social issues."

"My favorite thing about the major is that it answers one of the big questions: How do you make videogame development presentable to parents?" says Darius Kazemi '05, a founder of the Game Development Club. "I attended the academic summit at GDC 2003 [Game Developers Conference, the leading annual meeting of videogame developers], so I was familiar with what was happening in different schools around the country. I've had a lot of contact with local companies, so I know what they want to see in someone who's graduating from college: what sort of math skills, what classical subjects, and so on. This major will be great for that."

Jimmy Guterman is the editor in chief of Gaming Industry News and the proprietor of guterman.com.

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Last modified: Jul 21, 2010, 12:32 EDT
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