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All fun and games for these students
By Elisabeth Mistretta | Daily Herald Staff

DeVry University students Aaron Crosby, left, and John Coniff play the "Guitar Hero" video game as part of their studies at the school's new Gaming and System Programming major.


Marcelle Bright | Staff Photographer

Sophomore Jon Luberts views "Team Fortress 2" in the university's video gaming lab.


Marcelle Bright | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/30/2007 5:59 AM

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This group of about 25 men and one woman are the new crop of students paying tuition dollars to, it seems, play video games at DeVry University's Addison campus.

These students aren't slackers, though. They're enrolled in DeVry's new Gaming and System Programming major.

Similar degrees are being offered in the area, including at Westwood College's O'Hare campus, the Illinois Institute of Art in Schaumburg and Chicago and College of Lake County. Even masters programs are popping up nationwide at such schools as Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

With the video game industry seeing record sales of $13.5 billion last year, it would makes sense that colleges are establishing programs to help students break into the business.

"The industry is growing, and it's growing fast," said Matt Harmon, a video game developer from Arlington Heights. "I think these (programs) are going to bring a lot of highly motivated and highly creative people into the industry."

Not all fun, games

Sure, playing Xbox to help earn a degree is a good time. But students looking to earn a diploma for playing games need not apply.

Jana Abri, dean of DeVry's program, says the courses demand heavy-duty academics.

"A lot of them think, 'I'm just going to get in there and play games.' " Abri said. "But there is a really strong element of math and physics."

For example, a student creating an archery game must understand physics to simulate the trajectory of an arrow.

Larry Bowman, academic director of game and art design at the Illinois Institute of Art, said programming degrees will help companies easily discover top talent. He argues that because technology has advanced and gaming is now big business, students are training to be experts in specific disciplines, such as music or graphics.

"That means we can start to get picky," he said.

Several students in DeVry's program said they aren't deterred by the academic rigor. The degree is a natural extension of their gaming passion.

Some students, like 19-year-old Nick Thielman of West Chicago, already have programming experience.

Thielman's affinity for making changes to existing games has made him part of the modification, or "mod" community. Modders add new characters, weapons or skill levels to existing video games to keep them fresh.

Before schools started offering formal programming majors, companies like Chicago-based Midway, which creates popular games like the "Mortal Kombat" series, plucked new employees straight from the mod scene.

Bowman, who created game art for the company Interplay nine years ago, said many of his programming peers were college dropouts.

"Before, it used to be just a bunch of geeks -- and I can say this because I am one -- that wanted to make games," Bowman said. "Now even lower-level positions, like game testers, are required to have a degree."

Midway's job listings for game programmers require at least a bachelor's degree in computer science.

Saturation factor

About 15 years ago, Harmon joined the growing gaming world with a liberal arts degree in film and a natural talent for programming.

Now his company, EV Interactive in Arlington Heights, creates lesser-known Xbox games, including "Lawnmower Racing Mania 2007," as well as PC simulations.

Harmon says despite some worries about industry saturation, it's possible that the gaming boom can absorb all the new graduates.

One reason is because would-be video game designers can apply their skills to more practical ventures.

Such as simulation.

"It's a multi-billion dollar industry every year with the federal government," Abri said. "They need simulation programs for people learning to drive a tank or fly a plane. Or even in education, like for drivers ed or teaching shop students how to change oil in a car."

Although it isn't as flashy as making the next "Madden" football game, some students see simulation's value.

Vernon Hills resident Erik Schneider, 26, is not only a self-proclaimed video game buff, but he's also a U.S. Army veteran. The DeVry student served for three years and spent much of his time driving tanks.

"It's, basically, just like a large video game," he said.

So if graduates don't land a dream job creating "Halo 4," the option is there for them to use their degree and make money.

"I suspect," Abri said, "that is going to be the area where there will be a lot of employment opportunity in the future."