Colleges and universities across the nation are developing highly specialized degree programs to attract new students and exploit changes in the job market. Among the fastest-growing areas of study are fields that reflect the growing importance of technology in society, such as computer security, forensic computer science–and even video game design.

“We’ve become a much more specialized society,” said Michael Baer, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “And colleges and universities have tried to be much more responsive to the needs of the work force market.”

The strategy also increases enrollments of students who normally would not attend a four-year college.

For instance, Meg Haufe studied business at a community college and worked as a data-entry clerk before deciding to try to turn an obsession of her youth into a career. The 30-year-old is now working toward a bachelor’s degree in video game design at the Art Institute of California.

“I’ve always wanted to get into the video game industry. I grew up with them. I play them constantly,” said Haufe, who specializes in developing characters.

At the San Diego campus of the Art Institute of California, Christian Bradley, academic director of game art and design, is always concerned that a sudden shift in consumer demand could affect the job prospects of students who graduate in video game design.

“I’ve got a ton of people holding me responsible for keeping track of this,” he said. “It keeps me up nights.”

The degree program began in January with 57 students. Enrollment had swelled to 122 students when the fall term began Oct. 6.

“There’s a huge market out there, so it made sense,” Bradley said.

Students are taught to design and illustrate games, with an emphasis on character animation such as lip movement and muscle flexing. They also play video games to see what makes them fun.

As a player, Haufe, of Knoxville, Tenn., likes fantasy, role-playing games such as Star Wars Galaxy, EverQuest, and Baldur’s Gate. Players create and design their own characters and then interact with others online.

As a designer, she hopes to land a job with a big company like Sony Corp. when she graduates in 2005.

Twenty-four-year-old Matthew Musselman, a student from Roanoke, Va., said he expects plenty of opportunities for a job because the industry is growing.

“But even if I don’t end up in video games, I still retain the skills to work in special-effects departments or films or cartoons,” he said.

The video game industry employs about 30,000 people in the United States, with the number of jobs expected to increase by about 5,000 a year, said Jason Della Roca, director of the International Game Developers Association. Salaries vary from $49,000 for designers with a few years’ experience to $300,000 for veterans.

As director of the new school of video game making at Southern Methodist University, David Najjab plans to attract students by using some of the area’s game luminaries–including members of id Software Inc., maker of the famed “Doom” and “Quake” games–as teachers and speakers.

But Najjab has plenty of competition from schools around the country.

Formal game education remains a relatively untapped area, but the emergence of video game schools makes sense in the 30-year-old industry, said Della Roca.

Gaming’s traditional training ground, a mentoring system where the self-taught pass on knowledge to like-minded tech-savvy gamers, is no longer enough given the myriad of skills needed to create a modern game, he said.

Jay Horwitz, industry analyst with Jupiter Research in New York, said making games requires many talents, from art and music to math, computer science, and physics. Pulling these disciplines together is increasingly common as the industry matures into a mainstream form of entertainment, Horwitz said.

“It’s still a pretty immature media, but a discipline for actual game development is starting to make sense,” he said. “Today you have a very rich environment.”

Southern Methodist University’s new Guildhall school of video game making is an 18-month, $37,000 program that will offer specializations in art creation, level design, and software development. Classes began in July.

Nationally, there are several well-established programs, including the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash., and Full Sail in Orlando, Fla.

Even traditional schools such as MIT and the University of Michigan have incorporated game-specific classes and programs into existing curriculum.

Fairmont State Community and Technical College in Fairmont, W.Va., began offering a bachelor’s degree in computer security in August. Courses include network security, vulnerability, and code reading, with one of the instructors specializing in detecting hackers and viruses.

“Is this market driven? A little bit,” Alicia Kime, coordinator of the computer science department, said with a chuckle. “If you want to run a [computer] system, you have to have a security expert. There’s a big demand for it.”

Students learn how to respond to a hijacking, how to contain a chemical release and determine the evacuation area, how to react under conditions of a terrorist attack, and how to identify possible terrorist targets.

At Iowa Lakes Community College, students are learning to track crime by computer in a new criminal justice program that started this fall. Students take core courses in criminal justice and additional classes that involve computer investigations, forensic computer science, and other specific computer courses.

“Computer crimes are growing in society today, and law enforcement needs to rise to meet this challenge,” said Russell Slight, assistant professor at Iowa Lakes. “With computers virtually touching every aspect of our daily lives, criminals have found new opportunities to victimize society.”

Instructors received additional instruction this summer to make sure they had training in state-of-the-art aspects of cybercrime. One of the instructors is Doug Elrick, a former Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation criminologist and one of the foremost experts in the Midwest on computer forensics.

The program already is proving to be popular, with more than a dozen students enrolled.

Links:

American Council on Education
http://www.acenet.edu

Art Institute of California
http://www.aica.artinstitutes.edu

Guildhall
http://guildhall.smu.edu

Fairmont State Community and Technical College
http://www.fscwv.edu/fsctc

Iowa Lakes Community College
http://www.ilcc.cc.ia.us