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Learning in a Gamers' Paradise

UCSC's computer game design program receives a $457,000 donation from Sony

learninginagamersDon’t let the association with toys fool you. Designing video games can be hard work.  Such hard work, in fact, that a group of Sony employees found themselves working nights, weekends and holidays without receiving proper overtime pay. They filed a class action lawsuit against their employer, Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA), in 2005, and in July 2007, they won $8.5 million in overtime from the company.


Last month, the computer game design program at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) was pleasantly surprised to learn that they were the recipients of $457,000 of the settlement’s uncollected funds. The donation stipulated that the money must be used for undergraduate scholarships within the computer design major. The department, including Jim Whitehead, associate professor of computer science at UCSC, had no idea that such a gift was headed their way.


“I just got a call out of the blue,” says Whitehead. “Sony knew about it for along time. They knew we were going to get the residual but it was unclear about how big it was going to be. It ends up being a much bigger gift than they anticipated.”


The check arrived in September, just in time to celebrate the computer design major’s second anniversary. The department expects that the financial bonus will bolster the major’s already booming popularity, for although the program is a rookie at the university ⎯ an untraditional one at that ⎯ it is experiencing constant growth. Ninety freshmen enrolled last year with the intention of entering the major, and this year brought in 110.


The only resistance Whitehead reports experiencing is from speculative parents of game design students who worry that their child will fritter away their college career (and prized tuition money, no doubt) playing video games in the library. Whitehead doesn’t deny that this habit is often a reality. But rather than see it as a waste of time, he has found that the students’ dedication to mastering the media is a sign of great potential.


“I’m finding that computer games are ways to get students very interested and passionate about computer science,” he says. “And it seems to me that whenever you have young students that really have this much of a desire and passion to learn, something great comes of that.”


Aside from parental concerns, the rest of the UCSC community has been warm and welcoming to the new program.


“I’ve been surprised at the lack of resistance and that people on campus are generally really supportive of the major,” says Whitehead.


Michael Mateas, a fellow associate professor feels that this reaction has a lot to do with the school’s record of embracing unconventional and innovative academia.


“Historically, UCSC prides itself as being a campus that pushed the frontiers of interdisciplinary thinking,” Mateas tells GT via e-mail. “Game design and development, which is a radically interdisciplinary endeavor, is a perfect fit for this campus. It makes sense that we’re the first UC to host a game program.”


As not only the lone computer game design program in the UC system, but one of a mere handful in the entire nation, it is no wonder that the nearby SCEA took notice.


“It was probably in their best interest to have this money go to a computer design program in their backyard,” says Whitehead of the Silicon Valley company.


In addition to the funds received, the program has seen the benefit of a growing relationship with Sony as a result of the settlement gift. The company donated six Playstation Portable development kits to the major, making UCSC one of the first universities to receive the classified item.


A software development kit is a set of proprietary tools that act as an instruction manual for programmers, so they know how to cater their programming language to the needs of the hardware or software that will deliver it to gamers’ hands. Many kits are open source, or freely available for download, but in the high-stakes and high-income world of console gaming, the development kits for boxes like the Sony Playstation and Nintendo Wii are prized possessions that professional game development companies haggle to acquire.


The most significant effect of the $457,000, however, has yet to be actualized. The scholarship fund will help to reinforce the student talent pool, bringing in even more dedicated game design students whose studious passion fittingly reflects that of the hard-working Sony employees who made this gift possible.


“We can use the money to help attract the best and brightest to the program and hopefully increase enrollment of women and underrepresented minorities,” says Mateas.


Whitehead agrees that the financial aid support will help the program expand in terms of enrollment, diversity and talent, therefore helping UCSC to become a top game design destination for students.


“My hope is that this money will allow us to be competitive in attracting the top students to come our program,” he says. “[We can] use this to make UCSC a more attractive school than other schools that don’t offer this program.”

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