SANTA CRUZ — Nathaniel Emond grew up in a household of gamers — mom, dad and brothers all competing with each other in games like "Super Mario" and "Legend of Zelda." But he never thought he would make computer games for a living.

That's just what he's hoping to do as he finishes his fourth year at UC Santa Cruz. This summer, Emond, 22, will be in Redwood City as an intern at Electronic Arts, the No. 1 game maker in the country.

Emond credits UCSC's new computer game design program with providing him entry into the competitive but increasingly viable game industry, where entry-level professionals can fetch upwards of $50,000.

At UCSC, Emond, a history major with a minor in Japanese, enrolled in Foundations of Interactive Game Design, one of the program's introductory courses. He eventually helped teach the class.

"I can't program, to save my life," said Emond, who now knows the software essential to making games.

This was the first year of the program, which offers a four-year undergraduate degree in game design at the Baskin School of Engineering and focuses on the construction and design of interactive computer games.

The program has had many successes, attracting students of varying backgrounds, producing hundreds of new computer games and providing some, like Emond, an opportunity to get real job experience.

While fewer than 10 students graduated with the degree this weekend — because it's so new and standards were just approved — 90 freshmen have enrolled for fall.


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By comparison, 30 students are enrolled in the traditional computer science track.

"We had a great year for such a new program and are looking forward to next year being even better," said Jim Whitehead, professor of computer science and one of the architects of the program.

For many industry observers, it's about time the university caught up with the students. The college-age generation has grown up with video games, and the game industry now rivals Hollywood for revenues.

"I think schools are a little behind the times," said Josiah Pisciotta, owner of Chronic Logic, a Santa Cruz-based computer game company. "Video games are a huge entertainment industry, one of the largest in the world, so it is about time it is taken seriously."

But not everyone in the industry thinks teaching game design at the university level is a great idea.

Jack Emmert is creative director for Cryptic Studios, a game company in Los Gatos. Though he knows the program is not just kids playing video games for four years, he said students are misguided if they think they can learn game design in an academic setting.

"I think these programs are stealing money," Emmert said. "It's premature for universities to sell degrees when the industry hasn't even figured out what the skill set is to be a successful game designer."

The UCSC program is interdisciplinary, combining programming courses with those in digital arts and film. The degree requires students to take five computer science classes and five electives within the department. Students must also complete a design seminar their senior year.

Throughout the program, students create their own games, either in groups or on their own. This year, hundreds of games were created.

Many of the students designed games that are strategic in nature, often referred to as "casual" games in the industry, as compared to more popular shoot-'em-up games. Casual games have simple rules that anyone can learn to play in a few minutes, like "Tetris."

"It's easy to make games with shooting and destruction, but the challenge comes in trying to do something different," said Karen Siebald, a senior who took the game design class but is majoring in conceptual art. The game she created is called "Waterworld" and challenges users to catch fish.

The emphasis on violence in computer games is addressed by the program as students are required to take an ethics course to complete their degree. The shift away from violent games may also reflect the growing number of women interested in game design.

"Dudes aren't the only ones who play games," said Chelsea Collins, 19, who enrolled in the seminar class. She would love to major in game design, but her parents would rather she become a lawyer. She said it's the freedom of gaming that she enjoys most.

"It's interesting to be able to create your own worlds," she said.

Santa Cruz was an ideal location for this innovative program, according to Whitehead. The engineering school is only 10 years old, and focuses primarily on information technology rather than the more traditional disciplines of civil and mechanical engineering.

The UCSC program is the only one in the UC system. In California, only USC has a similar, four-year program.

The Entertainment Software Association, an industry trade group, puts the number of colleges and schools offering some sort of gaming-related coursework at about 50.

Contact Sean Aronson at saraonson@santacruzsentinel.com.