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Video Games Are Now Part of Computer Science - 2002-06-01

Video Games were once a small segment of the American entertainment business, but now, they're an industry of their own, worth some $9.5 billion a year. In fact, the popularity of video games is growing faster than either music or movies in the United States. Because of this enormous interest, Video Game Design is showing up as part of the computer science curricula of more and more universities. New York's Rochester Institute of Technology is one of the first to offer a Master's degree program in video games. We caught up with David Clements for the story.

As a member of the Starwolf Army, I've been enlisted to disable the Blood Eagle's military installation. While other members of my team are going to defend the base, I'm going to make a run for their flag. Since, I'm outnumbered, I'm driving a tank to penetrate enemy lines....

Now that things are quiet, I'll grab their flag and... Oh no, I've been spotted! That was a little too close for comfort. Fortunately, my tank is right here waiting for me and it can take a beating. Whew! I just made it out of there alive.... Ha Ha! Score One for the good guys!

Oh sorry, I just got a little lost in Tribes2, my latest favorite video game on my computer. It's one of the first to incorporate team warfare on a global scale. Over the Internet, I can play with up to 64 other people anywhere in the world as I'm immersed in a virtual world that looks nearly as good as the real one.

Creating a game like Tribes2 requires game designers to incorporate realistic 3D graphics and CD quality sound, and have an in-depth knowledge of math, physics and computer programming. It certainly doesn't hurt to include a unique concept or good story line.

Rochester Institute of Technology Professor Andrew Phelps is instructing students who will likely become RIT's first masters of Video Game Design and perhaps the creators of my next favorite video game. Today, his computer monitor display - projected on a large screen behind him - shows a triangle, which he moves back and forth, on and off the screen.

This presentation may not sound particularly exciting, but Professor Phelps is demonstrating that a game programmer must consider such minute details as how a computer 'knows' when an object is visible to the game player. Tonight's homework for the class is to recreate the triangle demo using various moving objects, an assignment that will require the students to write a fair amount of code and figure out the correct mathematical formulas on their own.

Most of the 30 students in this class are already accomplished programmers. While this is a Master's level course at RIT, many students like twenty-year-old David Parks are motivated undergraduates who have been programming from a very young age.

"When I was in high school, my routine was I'd go to school, come home, sit in front of the computer and code graphics until it was time for dinner and then I'd eat and say bye to my folks and go back to the basement and code some more," he recalls. "During the weekend, I went a little bit nuts and had to get away from everything, but… I don't know. A lot of the kids… I'm talking to some kids every now and then when I'm home like... thirteen year old kids who are born into this technology."

It was college kids who grew up with this technology who helped make this degree program a reality. Senior Zachary Welch was one of the rallying forces behind creating the video game degree. He also heads the Electronic Gaming Society, a campus club that includes many students who are also enrolled in the Master's program. Each week the Gaming Society members get together to have fun.

There is a serious side to all the fun. Right now students in the club are putting together custom-made arcade style attachments and joysticks that are connected to regular home video game consoles. All this equipment adds new excitement to playing games, and assembling it gives club members real experience in electronics. Zack Welch believes these activities help advance the club's mission - game design and development. The next big activity for the club is to design a video game of their very own.

"It's really kind of a neat project. We're doing a multi-player tank battling game," he explains. "We're allowing single player usage, multi-player usage across the network... basically it's your 'drive around and blow stuff up' type of game."

As the club gets going on Friday night, there's enough driving around and blowing up to satisfy everyone. And there's no lack of commentary about what's wrong with some of the games now on the market… like Marvel versus Capcom 2.

"Capcom is notorious for just doing the bare minimum to get the game out there," says Zack Welch. "The game is so broken. They released this piece of garbage game that was play-tested for a week and a half before it was released. Later, when they discovered all these problems with it, there were so many problems that it ended up balancing itself out (so bad it was fun!) and becoming popular. I still play the game anyway, because it's fun, but not because it's a good game."

Bad video games have inspired Zack and his friends to take on yet another project. They're starting a nonprofit corporation dedicated to helping companies and individuals create better games. Among other things, their corporation will set up a website with a collection of source code that can be used at no cost by other programmers in their games. Because it is often difficult and time consuming to write program code from scratch, having these elements freely available can greatly increase the speed of game development. RIT students will help create that code and Zack says he hopes to get funding from a foundation that promotes the advancement of science and technology. He says the technology that leads to better-designed games can have unexpected social benefits.

"Game programming translates into just about anything," explains Zack Welch. "We heard stories of people in Europe who have to test structural integrity of airplane wings. Their old process of doing it takes countless hours to take photographs of these [wing] sections. Some game programmers were hired and they wrote an interface that allowed a microscopic camera to be inserted into the wing and remotely guided through the internal workings. They were using this game interface to the camera to look for structural cracks and stresses and strains, making air flight much safer. It speaks to what this technology can do."

Video game programming degrees are being offered at a growing number of U.S. colleges. That means when a student in a high school math class asks, "Why do I need to know that?" teachers will finally have an answer that students want to hear.