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July 17, 2006

UCSC creates new major in computer game design

By Tim Stephens

UCSC has approved a new major in computer game design, the first of its kind in the UC system. The new major, leading to a B.S. degree, provides students with a rigorous background in the technical, artistic, and narrative elements of creating interactive computer games.

Photo: Video game characters
Trip and Grace begin to argue in this screenshot from Façade, a computer game developed by Michael Mateas, who will be teaching students in UCSC's new computer game design major.
Image: Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern

"We are pleased to be able to offer this new degree program, which provides a unique combination of technical and artistic training," said Ira Pohl, professor and chair of computer science in the Baskin School of Engineering.

The Department of Computer Science will administer the new interdisciplinary program, which will also involve faculty in the Department of Film and Digital Media in UCSC's Arts Division. Students can enroll in the new major beginning this fall.

"Millions now play massively multiplayer online games, which constitute a new cultural force--a new medium. Digital media courses will provide students with the tools they need to understand this cultural transformation in conjunction with its technological and artistic possibilities," said Warren Sack, assistant professor of film and digital media.

A highlight of the major is a yearlong game design project in which students work in teams to develop and polish a substantial video game. The campus is creating a new instructional laboratory for computer game design to support these projects.

"Students will be able to turn their dreams of making computer games into reality," said James Whitehead, associate professor of computer science. "The yearlong project makes it possible to take a game concept and turn it into a fully functional game with high-quality gameplay, characters, and storyline. We want our students to break new ground and achieve excellence in game design. The yearlong project and fully stocked lab make this possible."

To help launch the program, UCSC has recently hired Michael Mateas, a leading researcher in the area of artificial intelligence for computer games. Mateas, an assistant professor of computer science, focuses on creating computer-controlled characters that have rich emotions, dialogue, and interactions with their environment.

Mateas is codeveloper of the game Façade, an interactive drama that represents a new genre of computer games. In Façade, the player is a friend of a couple having marital problems. The player "talks" to the couple (by typing), and they respond to the player and to each other. Whether they stay together or break up depends on what the player says.

"In making Façade, I wanted to create a new game-playing experience, where the player is truly immersed in the story and has nuanced interactions with the characters," Mateas said. "I look forward to teaching students how to use artificial intelligence techniques to create new kinds of game experiences."

The new major has a core of computer science courses and provides a rigorous education in the technical aspects of creating computer games. Additional courses in digital media permit students to focus on games from an artistic perspective. Electives permit students to explore relevant courses in art, theater, film, music, and economics. Pathways in the major permit students to transfer into it from community colleges.

Nationwide, there are only a handful of institutions offering technically focused undergraduate degree programs in computer games, Pohl said. In California, the University of Southern California is starting a similar degree this fall. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Georgia Institute of Technology have also both recently launched programs.

"Campus investment in computer science and engineering combined with a distinguished arts program, as well as the creative environment of Santa Cruz and the campus's connections with Silicon Valley, give us a tremendous advantage," Pohl said.

The program prepares students to take jobs in the computer games industry or to pursue graduate study in computer science, he said.

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