Professors of computational media at Georgia Tech say that gaming technology can be used to make advancements in everything from medicine to social justice and media. The school is one of 250 colleges and universities that are catering to the growing interest in gaming degrees.
Computer programmers have sometimes been called nerdy, geeky and brainy. The industry has a new reputation, though. It has become cool.
More than 250 colleges and universities offer gaming degrees, and many of these programs involve more than just video games. At the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, for example, there is one that combines engineering, computer science, art and media.
The augmented environments lab at Georgia Tech is bustling. Blair MacIntyre runs the lab and shows off some of the experiments. In one corner there's a room surrounded by wooden planks, and a green screen covers the floor.
This experiment is designed to measure a person's response to a fear of heights and learn from it.
"It really is the kind of combination of the kind of graphics you would see in a movie or video game," McIntyre says. "But because you are in the world, it really feels more real."
Gaming is the biggest force driving this technology. But MacIntyre says many others use it including the U.S. military and people in the medical field.
There are also practical, everyday uses for this type of technology. MacIntyre gives the example of an application that could, when installed on an iPhone, show a car owner if there was something wrong with her vehicle. "You look at your engine through your phone and figure out some basic repairs," MacIntyre says.
Across the Georgia Tech campus, students learn how to design and program based on one of the first major gaming systems — the Atari. Ian Bogost, a professor of digital media, gives students a background in gaming and knows they will use the technology to solve all kinds of real-world problems.
"We can apply them to journalistic pursuits, corporate learning," Bogost says. "We can apply them to social action, social justice. So when we look at games, and when we teach about games, it's not just about the entertainment industry. Although that's one aspect, it's really about the future of media much more broadly."
A Growing Industry
Even with a sagging economy, colleges and universities across the country have added gaming programs in the hopes of attracting students.
Richard Shemaka started out as mechanical engineer but found gaming more creative and, he hopes, more profitable.
"As a mechanical engineer, I was all about slide rules and multiplication tables," Shemaka says. "As soon as I got into computing, I just fell in love with it. I really love the logic behind it. I love just the sort of building-something-out -of-nothing sense that you get from it."
Emily Cribb is also a senior and one of a few women in this program.
"Everyone's going to need their escape," she says. "Everyone's going to need their muse, and games provide an excellent source of that. And I want to be in there helping people feel inspired and, thus, being inspired in turn."
The majority of undergraduate gaming programs have been developed in the past few years. Some people worry the industry will become saturated.
But Joseph Olin, with the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, says there are no signs the appetite for gaming is waning.
"I don't believe consumer interest in interactive entertainment is going to abate," he says. "If anything, it seems to be increasing each year."
While universities figure out which courses to offer, most suggest there are still plenty of opportunities for creative students to find jobs with major companies or to make their own way in business, Web design or as independent game developers. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.