Responding to the digital media industry’s appetite for skilled workers and the tastes of a new generation of students raised on Game Boy and Xbox, a growing number of schools and universities–including at least one Ivy League institution–now offer courses in video game design.

Down the hall from Shawn Lawson’s classroom at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), college students study steel design and software engineering. In Lawson’s class, they learn how to digitally animate a ball bouncing through a flaming hoop.

“We need to give him a real squish when he lands,” Lawson advises his students.

Animation I, Cognition & Gaming, and Computer Music are being offered as part of the year-old minor in game studies at RPI, one of dozens of schools that have added courses or degree programs related to video gaming in recent years.

RPI, which plans to offer a major in the field next year, graduated 27 gaming minors in its first year and expects a jump this year.

“The concept of designing good video games, or designing good human-computer interactions–that’s what I’m interested in,” said Chelsea Hash, a senior with a video game minor and a major in electronic arts.

From Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute to the University of Colorado, at least 50 schools around the country now offer courses in video game study, development, or design, according to industry groups.

Some of the schools offer full-blown academic programs. The University of Washington offers a certificate in game design; the Art Institute of Phoenix gives a bachelor of arts in game art and design; and the University of Pennsylvania has a master’s in computer graphics and game technology.

Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, said the high number of schools adding programs in the past few years shows how the game industry is maturing.

Della Rocca said that in the early “Space Invader” days of game development, one developer could mentor a handful of workers. Now, games can cost $10 million to develop and require 200 workers, making the industry hungrier for specialized skills.

RPI humanities dean John Harrington said the idea of teaching about video games in college “brings out the Puritan in some people,” but he said the technology-oriented school can’t afford to ignore the booming field of digital media.

Administrators at RPI say they have developed a serious academic program that marries technology and creativity.

Marc Destefano, who teaches the psychology of play, system dynamics, and game theory in his introductory course, wants students to appreciate the interplay of mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics that he says makes a video game work–be it “Pac-Man” or “Resident Evil.”

It’s not all about design, however: Katherine Isbister teaches students about the social and emotional aspects of gaming. Her research lab looks more like a teen’s dream living room, with a sectional sofa, plasma-screen TV, and a shelf full of video games. Less obvious are the cameras that can focus on players’ faces.

Many of the academic programs at RPI and elsewhere are still new and are just starting to become a feeder system for the $10 billion-a-year video game industry.

Della Rocca compares it to the emergence of film studies programs decades ago. Dismissed at first, they now produce big-name directors in a field considered by many to be a serious art form.

“Just like when rock and roll came of age, everybody wanted to be a rock star–as video games have come of age, everyone wants to be a developer,” said Carolyn Rauch, senior vice president of the Entertainment Software Association.

Links:

RPI’s Minor in Game Studies
http://www.rpi.edu/dept/hss/igsm/IGame/gamestudies.htm

International Game Developers Association
http://www.igda.org

Entertainment Software Association
http://www.theesa.com