Art and Art History Adds Gaming to Digital Media Track

When initially developed, video games might only be found in nickel arcades, at home on an Atari 2600 console or at work on a 5.25-inch floppy disk popped into a Commodore 64. They were created and loved by the same people who enjoyed comic books or debated the finer points of “Star Trek” or could write — and read — thousands of lines of programming code.

Today, these games are simply everywhere. You can play online, on a hand-held device or from your iPhone. Video games have become so common place in today’s society one could hardly even call them “games” – they have become integral applications that enhance our lives.

Beginning this fall, the University of Texas at Arlington, Department of Art and Art History will incorporate game theory and game design into its Digital Media Track. The goal, says department chair Robert Hower, will be to equip students to push the boundaries of gaming.

“We want students to be able to create commercial and non-commercial products,” Hower said. “More importantly, we want them to receive a concentrated education in gaming and design. The question becomes how do we prepare students to use technology and be innovative throughout their careers.”

Hower’s plan pushes gaming courses far beyond simply learning how to use 3-D rendering software or troubleshoot code. The program will allow students to learn and incorporate those technical skills into their work while spending an equal amount of time on concept, story, artistic design and general sensory experience of a virtual world. This program, Hower said, would give graduating students exposure to a variety of job options in the digital medium.

“Graduates of the UTA Digital Media Track could expect to branch out in many technical media areas, including the game industry,” said Lecturer Jim Galis, a gaming executive specialist and an 11-year veteran of the gaming industry. “This could range from a skilled member of a game development team, to a creative contributor for a web or media outlet or even as an entrepreneur creating game applications with ideas that evolved during course work.  The Digital Media Track will give exposure to multiple disciplines within a team-driven atmosphere, which are skills and traits that are attractive to many industries today.”

Of course, UT Arlington isn’t the first school in the area to establish a gaming-specific degree. The University of Texas at Dallas has a program that focuses on research and theory; Southern Methodist University’s advanced degree prepares students for careers as game developers. Galis said the UT Arlington program will “provide something in between, offering a combination of theory, applications and interdisciplinary communication with a results oriented approach.”
For Hower, the program won’t focus on producing the next in a long-suffering series of first-person shooter games. He envisions application in a variety of ways that would allow users to possibly learn a new skill, cope with a tragedy or expand their knowledge.

“One example might be to create a virtual world for burn victims, create something that might ease their suffering,” Hower said. “Another example would be immersive environmental help material for a solider returning home.”

Galis, who served as executive producer at Paradigm Entertainment, has seen the industry expand exponentially over the past decade.

“Video games have moved beyond the normal entertainment area, and are prominent in health, simulation, training and education and will continue to expand as technology advances,” he said. “The video game business is evolving as well, and has gone from a one man dev team for a simple arcade game in the ‘70s to today’s mega-studios and mega-budget game productions, but is returning to its ‘garage’ roots.  The industry has gone full circle, and aspiring individuals can have successful home based businesses with the introduction of iPhone/iPad games and apps, free gaming on social networks and Indie games on Xbox Live Arcade.  This evolution provides graduates with entrepreneurial opportunities that didn’t exist five years ago.”

Classes for the digital discipline are slated to begin in the fall. Hower mentioned that the department will attract 40 or so undergraduates and three to five master’s candidates to the program. He has also enlisted the university’s Office of Innovation to work with the department on expanding the scope of the program to include an entrepreneurship course for students in the Fine Arts.

Galis said he and his fellow instructors would be able to offer decades of experience in a variety of areas to create well-rounded individuals.

“The hope,” he said, “is that the Digital Media Track will provide a good tool set that is applicable within this broad range of emerging technology. … The opportunities are unlimited.”

To learn more about this program, log on to the department’s website or call the main office at (817) 272-2891.

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