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Game Design by Degree
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A team of Rensselaer professors from the sciences, social sciences, and the arts worked for a year to come up with the calculation of credits and practical research that should go into an undergraduate degree in computer game studies. Their ideas have been debated in academic circles, publicized in The New York Times, and discussed at campus forums. In the fall the plan will begin the rigorous approval process needed to launch a major in September 2006.

Even so, the group has yet to finalize a name for the program.

“I think getting a consensus on what to call this will be challenging,’’ says Ralph Noble, associate professor of cognitive science. “We’re creating a program for a world that is only beginning to take shape.”

He and other members of the team have created a blueprint for what is believed would be the first undergraduate computer game design program in the country. In September, the proposal will go before a series of academic review bodies on campus, including the Faculty Senate, before landing on the desk of President Shirley Ann Jackson. And since computer game design is a new field, outside experts will need to testify that computer games are a credible academic pursuit. If this is done and President Jackson approves, the proposal would go for review by the state education department.

The selective curriculum — just 25 students are slated for the program each year — would expand on the popular computer design minor introduced last fall. Completing the major would require a rigorous journey through classic liberal arts and technology, followed by self-styled interdisciplinary study and original research.

Students would be required to meet broad liberal arts requirements, drawn from life sciences, computer science, math, literature, and fine arts. They would choose from a core of classes that examine the art and technology of games, including the history and culture of games, game design, interactive storytelling, and experimental game design. Finally, they would move on to a specialty area such as interactive arts, artificial intelligence, psychology, or game management.

"If you educate students to work at the highest possible standard, they will have an excellent 21st century education no matter what they do with it."

Some question whether the field of interactive computer games deserves its own bachelor’s degree. Among the skeptics is Jesse Schell ’92, who became a luminary in the game world after designing the Pirates of the Caribbean game at DisneyQuest.

Schell, who majored in computer science, credits Rensselaer with providing a broad education that emphasized strong ideas over flashy technology. He now teaches game design in the graduate program of the Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center. But Schell worries that younger students are not fully served by an education that prepares them for a specific field.

“One of the big mistakes that schools can make is to follow the money,” he says. “Computer science enrollment has been declining steadily and now programs are saying ‘What can we do to get kids to sign up? Computer games are hot.’ That’s not lifelong learning.”

But Noble points out that the computer is a jumping-off point for any number of careers.

“We don’t expect everyone to go into computer games. But right now game design makes the most demands on computers. It’s the standard for showing what computers can do,” he says. “If you educate students to work at the highest possible standard, they will have an excellent 21st century education no matter what they do with it.”

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

 
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