Despite the fast-growing and lucrative landscape of video game designing, minority students are finding themselves with limited options in the field.
Malcolm Perdue faces a dilemma as challenging as the computer games he loves to play. The 19-year-old student at Atlanta Metropolitan College wants to learn how to become a game designer. Not only would doing so be a lot of fun, designers can make $80,000 a year early in their careers.
But his school has limited options in the field. Nearby Georgia Institute of Technology and the Savannah College of Art and Design, which has an Atlanta campus, offer full curricula in game design, but SCAD costs nearly $28,000 a year in tuition alone, and Georgia Tech
demands high math scores. “Right now, I am focusing on my school,” Perdue says.
Indeed, minority students may find their options limited for what is a fast-growing and lucrative field. According to the Entertainment Software Association, game sales have reached $9.5 billion, triple what they were in 1996. The average age of players is 35, and 40 percent are women. By some accounts, before the economic downturn, gaming was growing at a rate of 24 percent each year and had been offering 822,000 new jobs as smaller companies such as Bandai Namco race to catch up with leaders like Sony and Nintendo.
According to the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), a trade group based in New Jersey, some 80 percent of the
designers are White, 4 percent are Hispanic, and 3 percent are Black. Asked about the discrepancy, Joseph Sapp, community liaison for IGDA, says “there’s a concerted effort all around to get more people involved in game design.”
Yet few historically Black colleges and universities offer much in the way of computer gaming, which can involve a wide range of specialties from graphic design, to computer programming to marketing and accounting. For example, Howard University’s College of Engineering, Architecture and Computer Sciences offers only two courses in game design and none at the graduate level. Many schools that do offer such courses in the field are fine art schools or heavy-weight engineering universities such as Georgia Tech or Carnegie Mellon University. Distance educators such as DeVry or the University of Phoenix are also options.
Experts are aware of the lack of minorities in the game design field and say they are working for improvements. “Gaming is a wonderful opportunity to bring nontraditional students into various fields of college study,” says Dr. Keith Moo-Young, dean of the California State University, Los Angeles College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology. “It’s a great way to lure minority students into fields such as art, engineering and computer science all at once. Once you get in, you are exposed to all three,” he says.
Moo-Young’s school is in an unusual position to help minorities get into gaming as its student body is diverse. Specifically, 53 percent are Hispanic, 22 percent are Asian and 9 percent are Black.
Among the school’s course curricula are two sequential courses in engineering and design and programming language. Also offered are courses in cartoon animation and robotics. CSU Los Angeles also partners with nearby University of Southern California in various aspects of gaming design. The institution is ideally located in California, a major center for the industry that features such game-producing firms as EA Sports, Sony, PIXAR and DreamWorks.
Professionals offer cautionary tales, however. “There are a lot of colleges who say they are offering some design work and they have jumped on the bandwagon, but what are they offering,” says Steve Waddell, founder of I Support Learning, a private education company in Olathe, Kan.
His firm tries to spark interest in game designing at early stages, such as middle school. For example, his firm goes into the Kansas City, Mo., school system and offers workshops and two-week courses in game design for 4,000 middle-school students and their teachers. If the program centers around inner-city school children in Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City or Orlando, as many as 100 percent of the participating students are minorities. “We’ve found a great deal of success in inner-city schools,” says Waddell whose organization also works on gaming with colleges such as the University of
California, Los Angeles and Full Sail University in Orlando, Fla.
Another group that works to expand game design possibilities is the Ohio Supercomputer Center in Columbus. In the summer, the center taps its supercomputing power which has the force of 4,000 laptops connected together at high speed, to take part in a two-week gaming project. Students are able to work with interactive graphics and work on games that can be played by many players at once, says Pete Carswell, client and technology support engineer at the center. But
Carswell says that many of the participating students haven’t quite made the jump yet. “I think that students my son’s age in high school,” he says, “are still more interested in playing games than in designing them.”
An Older Demographic
Although gaming has not taken off yet at many traditional colleges and universities, it has been a staple at private, for-profit distance-learning educational companies such as ITT Technical Institute, the University of Phoenix and DeVry University. Having a bachelor’s isn’t always necessary to break into the field, provided the student has special talents to offer. But having one or, even better, a master’s means that the student will move faster into higher levels of design and win bigger salaries, says Sapp of the IGDA.
One 19-year-old student, Rylan Paral of Phoenix, Ariz., is
enrolled at a DeVry Game Simulation and Programming course and says it fits his needs quite well. “You can very easily make $80,000 in your very first year of programming,” he says. “It all depends upon what you want to do in games. If you want to make a game, you stay with programming and move around. If you want to do development (story writing, level creation and design), you’ll need to be in the field as a programmer for at least five years before you can,” Paral says. He adds that he’s happy with the DeVry program because it has a “fantastic” career placement program and allows him to tailor his course load around his lifestyle.
To reach the higher levels of game design takes multiple skills and lots of work, says Matthew Maloney, academic director of the School of Film and Digital Media at the
Atlanta campus of SCAD. At the Savannah school some 245 undergraduate and 58 graduate students are enrolled in gaming-related courses. Out of all students who reported their ethnicity, 3.15 percent of SCAD-Savannah minority students were interactive design and game development majors in Fall 2008. Maloney says he’s proud that the Los Angeles Times has named SCAD, along with Georgia Tech, as among the top 10 schools in the country for game design.
In fact, the two institutions often work together to pull off complex games. SCAD takes on the “front-end” design process, notably in graphics and aesthetics, while the number crunchers at George Tech handle the “back-end” work such as software programming and writing.
Yet as the gaming industry becomes more sophisticated, demands are becoming tougher for students wanting to enter the field. It’s not enough, Maloney says, to simply study animation or modeling and leave it at that. “Gone are the days when people were being snapped up in their freshman year because they knew how to open up the software,” he says.
These days, a student starting out must learn to think on several planes at once and never lose their sense of what a “game” is, he says. In some SCAD introductory classes, students are introduced to gaming without any electronic wizardry or bells and whistles. They are simply handed a pack of playing cards and told to design a card game. This is done, Mahoney says, because many games are all derived from some basic intuitive norms, such as “rock, paper, scissors.” Stripped down to its roots, for example, the popular “Rock Band” game is really based on the simple elements of “Whack a Mole.”
One current trend in gaming, Maloney says, follows global aging demographics. Even though most game buyers are middle-aged, truly serious gamers tend to be males from ages 18 to 34 who are willing to read and comprehend an 80-page instruction manual to get every possible bit of enjoyment out of their games.
“The industry is moving away from the
intense, conventional young men demographic,” Maloney says. As the population ages, players tend to want simpler, more intuitive games that don’t require as much preparatory work. “We’re going back to the arcade days of my youth when you had simple games like ‘Kong,’” he says. Indeed,
increasingly popular games on Nintendo’s Wii are more intuitive and simple, but they require a lot more play-testing by designers before they are released.
So what do employers want? According to the Digital Dreamer Web site, firms first look for people who love to play video games, are good problem-solvers and can perform successfully when it’s crunch time. Having an art or engineering degree from a marquee-name school helps, but having a love for the games counts most.
That is the case with Malcolm Perdue who can spend hours intrigued by games. But, like many young Black students, he says he doesn’t know where to turn and can’t seem to find many minority professors to advise him. SCAD and Georgia Tech do not seem to be options.
“I’ve thought about schools like DeVry, but I’m not sure how serious they are,” he says.
For now, he’s biding his time.
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