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Where Video Gamers Learn the Trade

New program at DeVry University in Crystal City enables students to pursue a degree in video games and simulation design.

Chris Axthelm is giving an impassioned critique of the linear storyline of the Batman Begins video game, his voice rising and hands moving with ever-greater velocity as he makes his detailed argument.

The plot structure is tedious, replicating verbatim most of the key scenes from the widely successful movie, released in the summer of 2005, Axthelm contends. Why spend hours playing the game, when one can just rent the movie and sit back with a bucket of popcorn, he asks.

"A video game needs to convey a good story," Axthelm says. "It can't just be a half-hour of gun shooting. As the games have progressed, gamers want more. The eye candy doesn't appeal to us anymore."

IN THE BACK of the classroom — filled with posters of acclaimed video games like Madden NFL 2005 and Halo 2 — Professor Rick Blunt nods his head in agreement, as he takes notes on Axthelm's presentation. It appears that Axthelm and the two other students in his group are doing well on one of their first assignments of the semester.

Axthelm is one of more than 70 students who enrolled this summer in a new bachelor's degree program in video game and simulation design at the DeVry University campus in Crystal City.

Video games are now an annual $7 billion to $10 billion industry — raking in more money per year than all of Hollywood — and the academic world is starting to take notice. Just as film schools across the nation churn out thousands of aspiring actors, directors and cinematographers each year, technical universities are becoming cognizant of the need to train high-quality programmers who can fill the need for more and more sophisticated video games.

DeVry now offers the degree in nine of its 80 campuses, and it is quickly becoming one of the most popular majors the school offers. "We're always trying to see where the technology industry is going, and this is what the companies are demanding," says Laverne Gosling, director of community relations for the Crystal City campus.

The program is also preparing students for jobs beyond the video game fold. For years video simulations have been the backbone of the military's training regiment, teaching new recruits how to maneuver tanks, fly fighter jets and surface submarines.

Now, simulation exercises are being used in a range of fields, including crime scene reconstruction, emergency response preparation and medical school instruction. And as the technology advances in the coming years, more professions will look to simulators as a cheap and effective way to prep employees or test new product designs and concepts.

By helping students master not just programming techniques, but graphic design and the math and physics of simulations, the DeVry program is keeping the students "one step ahead of what's going on in the industry," says James Xu, a professor at the school.

"THE WHOLE idea is we are not trying to just create video game artists," Xu adds. "By giving them a solid foundation in programming, they can go anywhere in the industry. And then let their imagination run wild."

Though it will be at least three years before any of the students graduate with a gaming degree, private companies and defense contractors in Crystal City are already lining up to hire them.

"One company called the other day and said, 'if you have 25 students, we'll take all 25,'" said Wendy C. McKean, chair of the school's business and technology management programs.

For anyone who grew up playing The Legend of Zelda or Street Fighter, sitting through an Intro to Game and Simulation Programming class is a surreal, if not exhilarating, experience. Debates on the nuances of Mario Kart are not the typical morning discourse in an academic setting.

Seventeen students, only one of whom is female, sat at rows of computers last week, many playing first-person shooter games in the middle of class. But they're not goofing off — they're learning, the students insist.

The first few weeks of the class center on the evolution of the gaming industry: its origins in the 1950s and 1960s; the joyfully simplistic early years of PONG and PacMan; the vicious turf wars between Nintendo and Sega Genesis; the introduction of the next generation of consoles, like PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube.

The course expounds on the cultural influence of video games, and the philosophy behind them. The professor requires the students to dissect video games, posting their analysis on online forums. Students study the marketing and programming reasons for why one video game became a best seller, while a similar one flopped.

It may be the only college course in the country where the students complete every assignment without a single complaint.

"HOW COOL is it to have a course that requires you to play four hours of video games a day?" asks Umeko Poole, 33, one of two girls in the program.

Like many elementary school-aged children in the early 1980s, Poole was first introduced to the world of video games by the Atari 2600, and its unwieldy joystick. When she got her first PlayStation, Poole ripped it apart, "just to see how it worked."

She is now an assistant manager with a video game store, and works in their branches in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. Every year a greater number of her customers are girls and young women, and it bothers Poole that there are so few games with female heroines.

When Poole saw a television ad for DeVry's new gaming degree, she decided it was time to stop selling video games and start producing them. "I want to help get more games out there targeted to females," she says.

Donavan Black, 23, calls Poole a "pioneer." He, too, is studying at DeVry, trying to fulfill his dream of becoming a video game developer, like the other 70-odd students enrolled in the courses.

Black works full time in construction, but also runs his own animation company and is in talks with publishers about producing his work. Although he has only been taking video game courses for six weeks, it's already starting to pay off: his boss at the construction firm recently elevated Black to a position in the office to help run the payroll program.

At first, some family and friends were skeptical of whether the diploma would lead to stable employment. Since the promotion the doubters have been much quieter.

"I'm learning the meat of programming and can use it in other fields," Black says, adding that he would be open to working for a defense contractor or other companies in need of people to develop simulators.

Growing up, Black's relatives would always chastise him for playing so many video games, saying he was "wasting his time."

"Little did they know I was breaking a game down — and preparing for a future career," he says, leaning back in his chair, a wide grin across his face.