Kennesaw State grows high-tech gaming program

Kennesaw State University senior Derek Martin was in a windowless classroom on a recent afternoon, having a blast as he stared at a computer screen.

Martin, 22, was playing video games as part of his classwork. More specifically, he was playing video games he created.

His friends, Martin said of his studies, think it’s very cool.

Martin is one of 417 students majoring in the university’s Computer Game Design and Development program. The program had two dozen students when it began in the fall of 2009.

KSU employs six full-time professors and offers 11 courses in the field.

More colleges and universities are creating video game design classes or programs as the industry grows along with student interest. A few dozen colleges nationwide have even developed teams that compete in video games (eSports) and some offer scholarships to gamers.

About two dozen colleges and universities in Georgia offer courses or laboratories for students to hone their game design skills, according Andrew Greenberg, president of the Georgia Game Developers Association. That’s double the total reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a decade ago. Georgia Tech and the Savannah College of Art & Design have programs that are consistently ranked as some of the nation’s best.

Greenberg is pleased with the growth, but hopes more Georgia colleges develop graduate degree programs in gaming.

“We know that the need is there,” he said.

State leaders are banking on the industry to grow. In 2008, lawmakers passed the Georgia Entertainment Industry Investment Act, which gives 30 percent income tax credits to qualified businesses that include video game design companies. KSU started its program the following year. Gov. Nathan Deal heartily welcomed several dozen game designers at the state Capitol a few years ago, saying the industry is playing an increasingly important role in Georgia’s economy.

The number of video game studios in Georgia has increased since 2005 from eight to 128.

The industry had an economic impact of about $600 million in Georgia in 2016, according to an October study commissioned by the association and done by Georgia State University assistant professor Jay O’Toole.

Though the industry is expanding, some believe such business tax incentives are ill-conceived and don’t work.

“In general, tax incentives are bad tax policy. Politicians love them. Recipients love them,” said George Washington University professor David Brunori, who specializes in state and local public finance. “But a sound tax system is built on a broad base and low rates. Exemptions narrow the base and cause the rates on everything else to be higher. Moreover, tax incentives are policies whereby the government is picking winners and losers in the marketplace. The government does a lot of things well. Picking winners and losers is not one of them.”

The toughest sales pitch on campus for deans and faculty is not the economic value of such courses, but convincing parents it’s more than just a game.

“It raises the eyebrow when we tell (parents) part of the coursework is playing games,” Jon Preston, dean of KSU’s program.

It helps, he said, when parents learn average starting salaries for video game design graduates range between $65,000 to $80,000.

Greenberg said for-profit colleges were first to recognize the demand for such courses, then came technical colleges.

In addition to creating video games, students are conducting projects using virtual reality. In one room, the size of a standard bedroom, about a dozen small cameras track and capture on a computer screen each move of students. Another room has about a dozen souped up PlayStation 4 consoles, courtesy of Sony.

Students, though, don’t get to start out with the fancy equipment. They play board games to gather concepts and ideas. Students take several computer science classes to hone the coding skills necessary to create their own games. Many students, Preston said, learn the work is not for them and choose another major.

Third-year KSU students Melissa Gilmer, 20, and Dustin Colvin, 21, majored in the program after initially focusing on other majors. The duo were working on a virtual reality game aimed at helping people deal with anxieties. The goal of the game is for each player to find their way through a room. After a player solves one problem inside a room, another obstacle emerges to create anxiety. For Gilmer, who has grappled with personal anxiety, she said the work has helped her deal with stress.

Such games are part of the program’s mission to create games to help others. KSU’s program has also developed educational video games with students at some Cobb County and Marietta elementary schools.

Dean Preston, 43, said he plays video games such as Diablo III, an action role-playing game, when he has a chance. His students almost always beat him.

“This,” he said, “is research.”

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