Computer Games Now Serious Business at Tulane

April 30, 2004

Arthur Nead
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Johnette Hassell A battle-ax-wielding warrior vaults over a wall and faces off against another warrior, armed to the teeth and bent on merciless destruction.

Is this a barbarous outpost of the Roman Empire? An intergalactic mining colony off the shoulder of Orion?

No, it's a computer game, and this epic drama and many like it are played out daily in living rooms and student dormitories the world over.

Soon, fascinating new games will be reaching this fertile market, thanks to the startup of a computer game development concentration in Tulane's electrical engineering and computer science department.

"The exciting part is the genuine enthusiasm that students have for this program," says Johnette Hassell, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science. "Some of them would walk over hot coals to be able to do this."

The program has been in the making for six to eight years, according to Hassell, but this year all the necessary pieces came together. The essential elements are new courses that are central to the concentration and a critical mass of student interest in game development.

This interest was channeled and articulated by a student organization, the International Game Development Association. As part of its promotional efforts, the Tulane chapter of the association, which has about 25 members, hosted a showcase for the new concentration at Lindy Boggs Center during Engineering Week in March.

"The department saw that the students were interested in making games," says Curtis Humphrey, president of the local chapter and a fifth-year student completing a master's degree in computer science. "They saw how much effort we were willing to put into it, and because we gave such a quick response of support for their idea, I think it helped them realize this was something that could really work."

The program has hit the ground running. "We've built it so it is integrated into the computer science major," says Hassell. "So any freshman or sophomore computer science student will be able to do it and some of the current juniors will be able to."

The concentration includes technical courses focused on developing games. Among these are graphics and animation courses, as well as a new advanced course that looks at game development as a software engineering enterprise.

Students' electives during the junior year will be structured to bring in wide-ranging interdisciplinary content that is relevant to developing games. These could be courses in art, history, anthropology, psychology or other liberal arts fields.

To prepare the students for life away from the university environment, the electives also include business courses touching on such topics as entrepreneurship and media law. "In their final year, students will have a senior capstone project that will be a yearlong development of a real-world game," says Hassell. According to Humphrey, creating games is similar in some respects to making a movie in that it is a collaborative endeavor.

While the development team comprises mostly artists, storywriters or musicians, it is up to the programmers to integrate all the elements and develop the governing dynamics of how the game runs.

"Then there are designers who don't actually do programming, but design how the game should feel--they're like the director," says Humphrey.

Computer games have been big business for several decades, and the rapid development of games has benefited more than just players, says Hassell.

"The gaming business is hot, and we think it's going to stay that way for a long time, primarily because people are taking the technology that's developed for games and building it into non-gaming systems," she says. "A lot of applications now being used for training or medical diagnosis actually had their first life in the gaming world."

Many students come to the program out of a lifelong fascination with games, according to Humphrey, and they are interested in learning how to develop a better mousetrap--games that are more realistic and more interactive.

"These students are going out and doing more work developing games than we ever assign them in class," says Hassell. "They are doing it because it's fun and they like it."

What Tulane offers to students and their parents, according to Hassell, is that its game development concentration is embedded in a fully accredited, well-recognized computer science program.

"Parents can be assured that, if gaming turns out to be a fad that goes away in a few years, their children have a sound computer science background and they can go anywhere in the marketplace."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000