U Game Development Program Creating More Than Entertainment

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
University of Utah Entertainment Arts and Engineering student Jared Brunner shows his children “Izzy and Patrick,” a game he created at the U. in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 28, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Faced with more than 100 program options across the U.S., Kenny Green said winnowing his top choice for pursuing a graduate degree in video game development was a fairly simple process.

“The University of Utah program was No. 1 in the country,” he said. “So I applied.”

Now, Green is on the verge of completing his studies at the U.’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering Master Game Studio program and looking forward to working in the professional game development world. He already has applications out to several Utah-based game studios.

And Green is well-prepared for what lies ahead for him, said professor Robert Kessler, the program’s founder and executive director.

“The gaming industry is very popular, with lots of interest from young people who have a very high passion for games,” Kessler said. “We work very hard to ensure that our students stand out from everyone else.”

That, he said, starts with a curriculum that reflects the conditions students will be facing in the real world of game development.

“Our students are immersed in an environment where they need to learn how to interact with all of their project collaborators,” Kessler said, including “artists, engineers, producers and designers. We spend a lot of time on mentoring and coaching students through the challenges of working with a large team.”

Another requirement for both undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in the Entertainment Arts and Engineering program is to publish a video game. These yearlong projects bolster students’ technical skills in producing a functioning and successful game, as well as providing an experience that most budding game developers don’t acquire until after they complete academic work.

Green functioned as a producer on a nine-member team that developed the game “Hide vs Seek,” which is set to release in a couple of weeks.

“When you have a game credit out there, you’ve got an advantage over everybody else,” Kessler said. “Now, when they’re in an interview, they can talk about their experience of actually developing a game rather than answering a question about if they can responsibly handle a role on a game development team.”

Since its launch in 2007, Kessler said Entertainment Arts and Engineering program students have published more than 50 games, with many having earned hundreds of thousands of downloads and a few projects (most are given away as free downloads) earning a little cash for their developers.

While many in the program have their sights set on breaking into a world that has produced video game megahits like “Minecraft” or “Grand Theft Auto,” a growing segment of students are finding interest in the realm of so-called “serious” video game development.

These projects are aimed at addressing a myriad of non-entertainment topics like aiding in physical therapy for amputee patients, helping wheelchair-bound individuals take on new challenges, or providing cancer patients with a personalized guide through their treatment and recovery process.

Professor Roger Altizer is a Entertainment Arts and Engineering co-founder and director of the U.’s Gapp Lab, a 3-year-old collaboration between the game development program and the university’s Center for Medical Innovation that produces therapeutic games and apps.

Altizer said the lab has more than 30 graduate students working on games and apps, and for many, the experience is revelatory.

“Very few students come into the EAE program thinking they’ll do this kind of work,” he said. “Then they discover that the experience they get working in our labs is not like school. It’s real patients and real projects.

“And for some students, it resonates and they end up staying with us.”

Gapp Lab students work with researchers on a variety of projects. Altizer said efforts have ranged from developing simulators to help tetraplegic patients practice skiing or sailing in the virtual world in preparation for actually skiing or sailing with devices adapted for their use; to a game to help autistic young adults think choreographically; to an app to help expecting mothers manage and monitor pregnancy-related weight gain.

The convergence of student video game developers with medical researchers, Altizer said, has served to create a new and very positive problem-solving energy within the research realm.

“Most of the way we deal with health, we think of it like work,” he said. “Take this medication, do this exercise and so on.

“The things in life we truly enjoy are called play, so if we can turn health care back to the realm of play, we believe we can make you healthier.”

Altizer said he expects the successful cross-pollination of medical research and the Entertainment Arts and Engineering program to continue to grow — and that likely will produce even better video game developers.

“The type of student that comes out of this program is not just the digital worker of today,” Altizer said. “It’s the leader of tomorrow.”

To learn more about the Entertainment Arts and Engineering program and Gapp Lab, visit eae.utah.edu.

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