Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Computer gaming program’s popularity reflects industry boom

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As the spring semester came to a close at Montgomery College, many students flocked to the library to study for final exams or write multi-paged thesis papers. But some dressed up as Donkey Kong and performed a live version of the popular video game on campus.

The live-action demonstration illustrated a growing trend at Montgomery College: more and more students are making video games their career choice instead of their pastime.

Students in the college’s Computer Gaming and Simulation program brought video games to life as their final project during Game Day, an annual tradition that showcases the students’ work through lectures and demonstrations.

The gaming degree program at Montgomery College is only three years old, but Professor Deborah Solomon said enrollment increases ‘‘exponentially” each year.

‘‘Maryland is this gaming hub and no one realizes we’re a big part of the gaming industry,” Solomon said.

According to Solomon’s Web site, studygaming.com, there are 60 gaming companies in Maryland and it is considered the east coast hub of the industry.

‘‘That’s why we came up with a degree because so many employers locally need employees,” Solomon said.

The first gaming company in Maryland started in Hunt Valley in the 1980s, Solomon said, and since then, new companies have sprouted all along Interstate 270, including the military and technology companies.

Many of the college’s gaming students work internships as game testers at local gaming companies like Bethesda Softworks.

More recently, Montgomery College partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop an educational game for middle school-aged children.

Several gaming, graphic design and programming students are collaborating on the work-study project that teaches sixth- to eighth-graders the importance of estuaries and keeping them pollution-free.

NOAA education specialist Marina Kraus said this is the federal agency’s first venture in creating a large-scale game with Montgomery College. NOAA previously worked with students to develop smaller interactive games.

‘‘We needed the minds of the young people in instructing science in a fun way,” Kraus said. ‘‘I attended Montgomery College and took many classes and I was amazed at the talented students around me and wanted to utilize that resource.”

Kraus said that computer games are the next generation of educational tools for children.

‘‘Young people nowadays learn differently than us and we would like to reach out to them and teach in ways that are less textual, but portray information in an effective way that’s also fun,” Kraus said.

Steve Coupe, who recently completed his courses in computer gaming at Montgomery College and is the lead sound engineer for the NOAA game project, said he believes an increase in the budgets for educational games could help the industry thrive and lead to more jobs.

‘‘There’s a whole untapped portion of educational gaming of high quality,” Coupe, 23, of Rockville, said.

Through a partnership with the University of Baltimore, many Montgomery College gaming students transfer there to earn a four-year degree in computer gaming. Students can earn their entire degree in Montgomery County by attending classes through The Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville.

The interdisciplinary program combines classes from various departments, such as computer programming, art and animation, and business and management. Gaming students choose from one of three tracks: art and animation, production and design, or programming.

For many students, inspiration comes from playing video games as a pastime for most of their lives.

Coupe said he started playing computer games ‘‘as soon as I could reach the keyboard.”

‘‘One of my earliest memories is of my father playing games on a computer,” Coupe said.

He is inspired by adventure games, non-violent puzzle-solving games and role-playing games, like ‘‘Dungeons and Dragons.”

Jerrod Johnson said he has an idea for a game that he has pitched to gaming companies, but was told he should pursue a college education first and then go after a job in the industry. He wants to create adventure games for children.

The 20-year-old from Silver Spring would not reveal the details of the game, saying it was confidential, but that he has a concept ready.

Keane Kaiser, 17, said he has played video games for as long as he can remember

‘‘When ‘101 Dalmatians’ [the game] came out and I saw the programmer showing how they made the game, I thought it was cool,” Kaiser, who is in the college’s early placement program, said.

Kaiser said that like the movie industry grew rapidly, he foresees the gaming industry booming just as quickly.

‘‘Gaming is the next big industry,” Kaiser said. ‘‘The graphics will only get better, more interactive.”