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US Schools Take Notice of Growing Video Game Industry

Home video games have been around since the late 1970s but are enjoying unprecedented growth right now. Economists expect the video game industry to add thousands of jobs in the coming years. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports that schools also have taken notice of the industry's rapid growth and are helping game players to become game creators.

The video game industry's regular trade shows are opportunities to show off the latest software that totaled some $8.2 billion in sales in 2004.

These glitzy games have humble beginnings in dimly lit offices like the ones at Bethesda Softworks. Alex Tran and other game testers work to find flaws, called bugs, in new games.

"I'm playing a Star Trek game right now, and I've been playing it for the past couple months,” says Tran. “And what you do is play through the game over and over again and it gets really redundant, but what you test for is - test for any crashes, anything that stalls the game."

These are the entry-level jobs for many who aspire to work in the video game industry. It is estimated that more than 150,000 people now work in the industry. Analysts expect that to grow to more than 250,000 by 2009. Many will start as game testers, using skills they've honed over years of playing.

Steve Coupe says his job has forced his parents to rethink all of their advice about studying books instead of playing games when he was younger.

"They were joking the other day that we kept telling him all through school to put down the games and study and now I should have been playing games more," says Coupe.

But American schools are now recognizing that an interest in video games can lead to a lucrative career. Some offer courses in specialized technical skills. Montgomery College in the U.S. state of Maryland is one of a few schools that offers degrees in video game design. Here, instructor Mike Cantwell teaches the basics.

"This is a two-d [dimensional] animation course, using Macromedia Flash. Basically the students learn to write a script, take the script and develop a storyboard for the animation that they will complete during the semester," says Cantwell.

This summer younger students are studying the artistic skills that can be used in video game design. More advanced students can go on to create much more complex animation, like that created by Roland Womack.

"He was basically building polygons and joining them together. Everything moves independently. So if you notice, the pants, her blouse, her hair, even her boots, there's movement involved. He's trying to establish a kind of natural realism. If you look closely, she even breathes, which is kind of cool," says Cantwell.

Courses at Montgomery College also focus on teaching students how to think about video game design. In this class, students act out scenes from the popular video game Zelda. They want to learn how developers come up with a game's internal structure and rules.

Professor Deborah Solomon is responsible for creating the video game design courses. She said the classes are even drawing interest from students in high school and middle school.

"This is a really strong interest for kids and even if they don't end up going into the gaming industry it gives them a background in technical knowledge and software capabilities that they can really apply to a broad range of different careers," says Cantwell.

With video games growing increasingly complex, industry executives say job applicants should have a wide range of experience and skills.

Pete Hines is a vice president at Bethesda Softworks. He says nearly everyone at his company has a passion for playing video games, but job applicants also need to show initiative.

"There's really no degree or school you can attend that's going to make us say, 'Well, we should definitely hire you,' ” says Hines. “We want to see people who have got lots of experience outside of their job or their coursework where they're doing stuff on their own time."

Hines says the video game industry in the United States is expected to grow larger than the nation's movie industry - spawning even more academic programs and training courses for the next generation of video game enthusiasts.