Video-game industry thrives here

Multimedia goes to school to teach more than entertainment


University of Baltimore student Brittany Steiner enrolled in a beginner's multimedia design class three years ago to fulfill a graduation requirement.

She didn't know the course would help jump-start her career.

The area's abundance of video game developers has pushed local high schools and colleges to tailor their multimedia programs. They've created specialized courses, degree programs and internships to help students sharpen their video game skills.

The goal is to teach students that the games business is about more than entertainment, as software continues to have applications in medicine, defense and corporate training. Students are also learning that liberal arts skills -- not just computer science education -- are necessary to be competitive in the field.

"Games have become very sophisticated and very technical, so the need for education has become greater and greater," said Joe Biglin, vice president of future markets for BreakAway Ltd., a video game company based in Hunt Valley.

Game companies, local business leaders and area educators, prompted by the cluster of game companies in the Hunt Valley area, developed the "2+2+2" program four years ago to prepare high school and college students for careers in the rapidly changing industry.

The program works with several of public high schools, community colleges and the University of Baltimore. Some business leaders say it is the most extensive program of its kind in the area.

By educating local students, Baltimore gaming companies say they won't need to recruit talent from places like Los Angeles to develop and market games. Area electronic-games companies have created games such as "Civilization," a PC game from Firaxis Games and "Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends from Big Huge Games."

Students can begin the "2+2+2" program in high school, where they take courses for college credit. They can then transfer those credits to one of several community colleges in the state, then to the University of Baltimore, said Kathleen Harmeyer, director of the UB simulation and digital entertainment degree program.

The program incorporates game concept, design and testing, programming and team building. Harmeyer said students are also required to complete two internships to gain real-world experience and to work in teams to create a game in every course. "It's computer science with a twist," Harmeyer said.

Patrick S. McCusker, principal of Eastern Technical High School in Essex, a public magnet school that participates in the program, said the school changed its multimedia communications curriculum to make computer programming a requirement, giving students a range of skills and better understanding of the industry.

Steiner, 21, of Bel Air, plans to graduate in December with a degree in simulation and digital entertainment. When she started the program at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, she wanted to pursue a career in art or biology. After taking a multimedia course as an elective, she decided to stick with the games industry.

"The more exposure I had to the inner workings of new media, the more interested I became in the `serious' side of games -- games with purposes beyond or in addition to entertainment, like simulation, education, military, health, etc.," Steiner said.

The program is proving successful. Kelley Gilmore, marketing director for Firaxis Games, said about half the company's interns, most of whom are University of Baltimore students, have become full-time employees.

Jayfus Doswell, president and chief executive officer of Juxtopia LLC, a Baltimore game company, said interns from three of area colleges and universities have helped develop an educational game for high school students. He said several interns have become paid company employees.

Fronda Cohen, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore County Department of Economic Development, said although the school system has worked with other businesses in the past, including the bioscience sector, to create certificate programs and additional training for students, the video-games program is the "furthest along" and "most complex" because of the industry's local importance.

But one expert said despite the advantages of schooling, having a video-games degree isn't a guarantee into the industry. Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, a nonprofit group with members from over 70 countries that promotes game developers, said students still need talent, skill and teamwork abilities to succeed.

"Students who don't have specialized degrees still have an equal opportunity," Della Rocca said.

Students say they are happy with the program and the career doors it has opened for them. Steiner said her position as a multimedia designer and her past job as a graphics artist at Connections Academy, a Baltimore company that operates virtual public schools, were based on the skills she learned through her degree program.

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