UC Irvine takes video games to the next level


UC Irvine has long sought to be known for preeminence in fields such as engineering, medicine and business. But now the university is embracing a new discipline: video games.

Once ridiculed within university halls as merely a nerdy pastime, computer games are being promoted to a full-fledged academic program at the Irvine campus, a medium as ripe for study as the formats before it: film, radio and television.

This fall UC Irvine established the Center for Computer Games & Virtual Worlds, and construction is underway on a 4,000-square-foot, 20-room “Cyber-Interaction Observatory” for faculty research. Plans call for floor-to-ceiling projection screens, 3-D stereoscopic displays and gesture-based interfaces.

If all goes according to plan, next fall UC Irvine will debut a four-year undergraduate program allowing students to declare “game science” as their major -- an idea that drew snickers when a few professors first proposed it a decade ago.

“There are people who will say we’re pandering to a trend,” said Dan Frost, an informatics lecturer who teaches a popular computer game development course. “But this really is intellectually justified. Universities are always doing things that seem crazy at first.”

It’s a fitting development for a campus where some students are so gaga for gaming that they spend sleepless nights writing code for their homespun games and like to unwind with pizza-fueled Street Fighter tournaments and Rock Band contests.

“People go to school to become painters,” said James Dalby, 30, a senior information and computer science major and vice president of the campus game development club. “Well, companies need that kind of skill to dream up all the fantastic worlds that they’re going to make into a virtual reality.”

The Irvine campus is one of a number of schools expanding offerings aimed at a generation that grew up well after the advent of Pac-Man and Pong.

“They’re so used to playing with computers that they get bored stiff with plain old textbooks,” said Magda El Zarki, a computer science professor and director of the center.

Computer game studies are growing in popularity at other universities. USC, for instance, admitted 31 students this fall majoring in computer science (games).

But the cadre of video game fanatics behind UCI’s new center, including dozens of students and 20 faculty members from different disciplines, has had to battle an obvious perception: that what they’re studying is just fun and games.

Not everyone, after all, sees the analysis of Halo or Half-Life as a legitimate academic pursuit.

A decade ago, computer science instructors at UC Irvine who tried to get approved a minor in computer games were laughed at and the idea was shot down. But now, whatever hesitation there was seems to have faded, at least within academia.

Faculty members have had success in winning research funding, though at times the awards have caused outsiders to shake their heads.

When UC Irvine researchers were awarded a $100,000 federal grant last year from the National Science Foundation to study the differences in how gamers from the U.S. and China play World of Warcraft, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) held it up as an example of fiscal irresponsibility in a report called “2008: Worst Waste of the Year.”

Yet the school has persisted, courting industry partners and raising millions of dollars in corporate funding and federal grants to study computer games and “virtual worlds,” or simulations that can be used for everything from stroke rehabilitation to courtroom reenactments.

“A lot of people, when they hear ‘games’ and ‘university,’ they see nothing in common,” said Walt Scacchi, a senior research scientist who helped found UCI’s Game Culture and Technology Lab in 2001. “They think games are mindless and not something to be studied seriously. Like many new disciplines, there’s often a high degree of skepticism.”

But the appeal of video game studies is broad, attracting even studio art majors such as 22-year-old Joel Youkhanna.

He transferred to UC Irvine because it was one of only a few schools that offer gaming as a course of study.

“I like coming up with ideas, characters and stories,” he said. “That’s what drew me to the world of video games.”

And now that he’s a few months shy of graduating with a concentration in game culture and technology, he’s hoping to find work at a major game company.

He smiles when asked if he ever thought he could turn a hobby into a college degree.

“I actually have a lot of friends who are really jealous of what I’m doing,” he said.

In Frost’s 10-week computer game course, students work in small teams to create a short game for a PC or cellphone. It could be a puzzle, a role-playing game, a jumping-based “platform game” or a first-person shooter.

One of the games students have collaborated on is Colossal Crisis, in which students under attack by Godzilla have to collect debris to bring back to their professor in order to build a robot to defeat the monster.

Frost is thinking about using the game’s characters as mascots to announce the new major.

He and other faculty believe video game studies are gaining acceptance, despite the naysaying.

“When people first started studying film at USC, I’m sure people were like, ‘C’mon!’ ” Frost said. “People said it isn’t serious. The attitude has changed.”

So in his course, Frost sometimes picks apart just a few minutes of a computer game like a film professor would classic cinema.

“Let’s see how that sequence of cuts worked,” Frost often tells his students. “It’s like listening to Beethoven’s Fifth in a music appreciation class.”

UC Irvine sees the program as a natural fit for Southern California, home to dozens of video game companies such as Activision Blizzard, which created the popular Call of Duty and World of Warcraft from corporate offices in Irvine and Santa Monica.

And the school plans to maintain a tight link with the industry by inviting professionals to give presentations as well as send students on tours of local game studios.

That exposure could help students make the transition from seeing gaming as a hobby to viewing it as a career.

“It’s not a bunch of nerds clamoring around a dark basement,” said Dalby, of the game development club. “It’s actually an office environment of people that have jobs and benefits and are really interested in what they do.”

As administrators wrangle for lab space to dedicate to gaming, students do most of their work -- and play -- on their personal laptops.

The center doesn’t yet have a physical location, after all.

“I guess,” Frost said, “it’s the virtual world.”