Do you want to play a game?

Or, maybe, create one?

West Virginia University has unlocked its entry to the magical level of gaming with a new graduate certificate program set to debut this fall.

Graduate students in computer science will be able to earn a certificate in interactive technologies and serious gaming, a potential gateway to working in the ever-growing game industry.

The program, approved by the WVU Board of Governors this month, is a collaborative effort between the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering and the Department of English.

“Notice it’s called serious gaming,” said Tim Menzies, associate professor in computer science and electrical engineering. “We’re serious. This is the future of human interaction of all societies.”

From “Pong” to “Halo,” the dynamics of games have changed from blips and bleeps to a vast paradise of multidimensional visuals, characters and storylines. Gamers no longer sit in front of wood-cased tube TV sets fiddling with one-button joysticks in isolation.

Nowadays, gamers worldwide engage in online communities where they strategize with or against one another in seeking their virtual goals.

It’s an ideal time for game-centric students to delve into the industry, say the brains behind the certificate program.

The initiative aims to fill a need in the industry for simulation systems, scientific visualization and other techniques and tools. Professors believe exposure to current research in the fields of computer graphics and artificial intelligence will enable students to develop next-generation technologies within those fields.

“The economics of games have changed,” Menzies said. “The gaming industry is now bigger than the movie industry.”

To bolster Menzies’ claim, sales of “Call of Duty: Black Ops” reached $650 million within five days of its November 2010 release. The first-person shooter by Activision set a five-day global record for any movie, book or video game. It soon became the best-selling game of all-time in the United States, selling 13.7 million copies and surpassing “Wii Play.”

Earning this certificate in interactive technologies and serious gaming will take more effort than eluding enemy combatants or slaying dragons.

Students will take courses in graphics, databases and artificial intelligence. As a capstone project, students must also produce a game for their portfolio.

“The skills you need to work in the gaming industry are hardcore math and computer science,” Menzies said. “If you can’t write scales or algorithms, you’re not going to get a job with these companies.”

Menzies’ colleague, Frances Van Scoy, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering, further emphasized the hard work and knowhow needed to complete the certificate program.

“You have to be good at physics if you want to model how hair moves or how a piece of fabric moves in a game,” she said. “You need to know partial differential equations. Students who develop games come out with solid skills applicable in a lot of areas.”

Within the past decade, Van Scoy has adamantly pushed for the development of a gaming program at WVU. She cites her students’ passion for gaming as a driving force. Even without a focus or concentration on gaming, some students have gone on to make a name for themselves in the industry.

Chiam Gingold, for example, studied computer science and English as an undergraduate at WVU. Gingold worked on the successful life-simulation computer game “The Sims” and is also recognized for designing the multi-genre, artificial life game “Spore.” Both titles were published by Electronic Arts, known for its highly popular “Madden” NFL games, as well as “Rock Band.”

Gingold’s areas of study – computer science and English – illustrate that would-be game developers need more than just the geeky, technical engineering skills. In addition to being a math and computer wizard, an aspiring game designer/programmer/creator needs to tell a good story. Enter the English Department for this part of the program.

“If you look at who designs computer games, there are just as many people who have backgrounds in creative or humanities fields,” said Charles (Sandy) Baldwin, associate professor of English and director of the Center for Literary Computing.

The English Department offers courses including multimedia writing and digital humanities, which are applicable to game development. The storytelling aspect of games is equally as important as their visual and auditory onslaught.

Without having to rescue a kidnapped Princess Toadstool from the clutches of the evil Bowser, a gamer’s escapades through pipes and fire-pitted castles as the protagonist plumber Mario would be for nil.

“If you describe your experience with a computer game, you’ll describe things like characters, stories, reading, writing and dialogue,” Baldwin said. “These are things people deal with in English departments. We talk about how to tell a story and develop characters.

“Writing for a computer game can mean a lot of different things. There’s ‘Halo’ and then there’s ‘Angry Birds.’ There’s ‘World of Warcraft’ but there’s also ‘Tetris.’ It’s really diverse.”

It’s no longer just a simple beginning and end for today’s gamers. Many best-selling titles contain nonlinear storylines and subplots.

Baldwin identified “The Sims,” “Zelda” and “Half-Life” as games that changed the landscape of the industry with their engaging, narrative force. Baldwin’s students study these games and their impact in his courses. He called “Half-Life” an “achievement in combining good storytelling with sci-fi monster-killing action.”

Click below to hear Sandy Baldwin discuss WVU's new certificate program in interactive technologies and serious gaming, as well as the storytelling elements of games.

[ Click to download ]

His students dig even deeper into the meanings and implications of games.

“They read cultural and theoretical analyses of how games tell stories,” he said, “and the relationship between games and certain historical issues like race, gender and society.”

Baldwin added that the cross-departmental involvement on the new certificate program fits the university’s mission of educating beyond boundaries. The program, however, is centrally located in the computer science department and is open only to its graduate students.

But both computer science and English departments hope this joint effort ultimately leads to a full-fledged degree-granting program for undergraduate and graduate students.

“Every peer university of our size has some major initiative in computer gaming,” Baldwin said. “In some cases, they offer certificate programs like this one. In other cases, they have major programs. In the long run, we hope to build this certificate program into something bigger, perhaps an actual major.”

The English department hopes to unveil a similar gaming certificate program for undergraduate students by Fall 2012, Baldwin said.

By Jake Stump
University Relations/News



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