Game design major wins national recognition

By Drew Hunt

GamePro Magazine, one the of the leading video game publications in the country, selected Columbia as one of “Six Game Design Schools to Watch.” The game design major was singled out for its unique take on the theory and culture of gaming.

According to GamePro, Columbia is notable for its emphasis on the aesthetics of gaming, opposed to the more technological side.

Tom Dowd, coordinator of the game development concentration within the game design major, said the program draws strength from Columbia’s reputation as one of the country’s more well-known

arts colleges.

“When you come here, you have the opportunity to be exposed to almost anything that you really want. That’s insanely important in game development,” Dowd said. “Games should not be [the students’] sole form of inspiration. They should be watching TV, reading books, watching movies, going to museums—just absorbing as much as they can.”

Dowd said other schools with prominent game design programs do not focus on the creative aspects of game development, something he deems crucial to the process.

“A lot of schools that produce game development programs are engineering schools, so their programs tend to spin up from their computer science degrees,” Dowd said. “We’re very interested in fostering the creative voice of our designers and our artists, saying ‘That’s great that you can create a game like ‘Halo,’ but let’s delve into why you’re doing these things. Let’s bring some meaning into all this.’”

With growing recognition comes growing interest, and there’s been a spike in traffic to the department’s website since GamePro’s article hit the Internet, Dowd said.

Even before the article, Dowd said there was a “remarkable” increase in parents and students showing an interest in game design. He said he’s received many calls from parents, particularly, who inquire about the game industry’s nature, including job opportunity and general viability.

“They got a kid who says ‘I wanna make games’ and they say ‘OK, let’s start doing the research.’ They’re asking great questions,” Dowd said. “Every year, we see an increase in that level of communication. We’re going to continue to grow.”

Dowd is no stranger to the video game industry. He was a designer of many PC and Sony PlayStation 2 titles and has the distinction of being the lead designer on a game called “MechAssault,” which was one of the first games to feature the now popular Xbox Live service.

Annette Barbier, chair of the Interactive Arts and Media Department, considers a growing video game culture to bode well for the game design major’s success.

“I think people’s interest in

has become more sophisticated,” Barbier said. “We’ve had a good long spell of people playing games, and now people are beginning to think that they could, in fact, master the disciplines necessary to actually create them.”

However, Joseph Cancellaro, associate professor in the Interactive Arts and Media Department and coordinator of the sound design concentration, admits the percentage of students who will find jobs in the entertainment game industry is low. But he considers the program to be multifaceted and could possibly lead to employment in realms other than mainstream gaming.

“The skills that you learn in building these games apply to not only entertainment-based games but simulation-based, medical, legal—there’s all sorts of things,” Cancellaro said. “The field of working with interactive environments is growing unbelievably because everything is going toward 3-D space.”

Barbier also said the department is striving to provide students with information of other employment opportunities. She said there’s a broad spectrum of possible careers.

“The games are more and more popular as ways of communicating information not just mainstream console or PC games,” Barbier said.

According to Cancellaro, the Interactive Arts and Media Department has a long way to go to achieve its goals.

He hopes to continue reinforcing the professionalism that comes with being considered one of the most notable game design schools in the country.

Dowd, meanwhile, is working to establish partnerships with other majors across the college in order to facilitate interconnectivity between them.

Starting this year, students in the Music Composition for the Screen Graduate Program are working together with game development students to create soundtracks for the games they create.

Dowd hopes to work with the Theater Department to find voiceover actors who can provide voices for different characters in the games.

This will require branching out in new and different ways, but Dowd remains optimistic that the department will continue to grow.

“We definitely have a lot of work to do,” Dowd said. “But these are high-class problems to have.”