A doctorate in "Doom"

For students at the world's first video game university, it's all math and little play.

Published February 25, 1998 11:55AM (EST)

"Why is it fun?"

That's not a question often asked at institutions of higher learning. But at DigiPen Institute of Technology -- the college of video game programming in Redmond, Wash. -- it's a mantra written on dry-erase boards all over the building, a query thrust at students again and again at each stage of a project.

DigiPen is housed in an edifice that looks far more corporate than collegiate. Every minute of students' time is accounted for in 10-hour days. Normal college activities like keggers, touch football on the quad and dorm dances are conspicuously absent. All of which makes one wonder: Is DigiPen itself fun? This school for game developers seems like an awful lot of work.

It's a Friday in January at DigiPen -- only the second week the U.S. campus has been open -- and 40 would-be video game programmers are prepping presentations of ideas for new games. Claude Comair, a Lebanese man of extraordinary energy and the president of DigiPen, is explaining that the students are in the initial stages of their first project, a puzzle game. It's a process that will be repeated each semester at DigiPen. The second semester project is a side-scrolling game (like "Super Mario Bros."), the third a single-player strategy game, and so on.

One group has created a puzzle about a potato trying to find its way home. Rilla Jaggia, a former assistant professor of finance at the University of Massachusetts and current video game student, shows me preliminary sketches of levels -- the green will be trees and forests, that X might be a bridge -- and characters for players to help home.

Potatoes are a far cry from finance, but Jaggia is excited about the outline of the game. "I was searching for a career that would involve both my artistic skills as well as my love for mathematics," she says. "I love music, I love to paint. I wanted to put them all together ... so I wanted a school that would allow me to make my own interactive graphics."

Jaggia doesn't fit the stereotype of the gamer and, in fact, by gamer definitions, she isn't one. She's played adventure games like "Riven" and "Zork" and is anxious to find a few hours to begin "The Curse of Monkey Island," but she hasn't lived and breathed games all her life. She's the exception.

Eric Housden and Bradford Ayres, two members of Jaggia's group, are much more what you would expect -- baggy pants hard-core gamers just beyond the grasp of adolescence. Asked if they miss having a "normal" college experience with dorms and parties and roommates, they're very clear. "If I was into those kinds of things I wouldn't be here," Housden says. "And since I'm not, I don't regret it. And I've always, always wanted to do this all my life, and I finally got here."

Here, for Housden, is the Redmond campus. The original DigiPen Institute, however, began in Vancouver, B.C. When DigiPen Corporation, a computer engineering firm (the name is short for "Digital Pencil"), was approached in 1990 to create 3-D animation for a feature film, it simply couldn't find enough talented people with the appropriate training to complete the project.

"We were, in a major way, lacking manpower," Comair explains. "So we started getting in touch with local schools and universities and asking them whether they could send interns we could train ... We were expecting maybe a few interns and we were surprised to find about 100 people interested." DigiPen began teaching the interns and "got so much interest, we started the DigiPen educational branch and began taking on students in 1994."

The Vancouver campus is still active, but the base of operations has moved to the new school in Redmond. DigiPen has long had a close association with Nintendo, which provides some funding, equipment and expertise. And when Nintendo offered to share its Washington campus with DigiPen, the school moved stateside. The move not only brought DigiPen
closer to one of its main benefactors, it also gave a financial boost to the school's predominantly American student body. While DigiPen was in
Canada, U.S. students had a much harder time finding financial aid -- and with tuition running at $12,000 a year, financial aid is critical.

DigiPen is expanding academically as well as physically. Plans now include implementing master's and Ph.D. programs in the next five years, and adding an arts degree. Next year, students will be able to enroll in storytelling, game scripting and 3-D modeling classes for a B.A. in the "literature-oriented part of video game making."

The school itself is small -- only 200 enrolled -- but some 20,000 applications were requested this past semester (figures aren't available on how many were actually sent in). Transcripts are reviewed carefully, but GPAs are only the beginning of the process. All references are checked with personal phone calls, and candidates themselves are called twice. The first interview is by appointment and consists of the usual college interview questions.

The second interview takes the form of a surprise phone call. The questions are all about math, the core element of the program. "That second interview is very, very decisive," says Comair. "We ask questions, simple questions, in mathematics that we believe a student should know without having to actually prepare or think: What is the sine of zero, what is the cosine of 1? Very simple ... We do spot checks with every single candidate and we make sure that we are satisfied."

The screening is rigorous for the simple reason that the workload is. Weekdays are 10 hours long, Saturday labs are six. And students had better show up. According to university policy, even brief student absences
need to be excused in writing, and according to the student handbook, "Only medical-related absences that are accompanied by a note from a family physician recognized by the medical association are accepted without extensive review." No Friday afternoon ultimate Frisbee for these guys.

None of these rigors seems to faze the students. "It is extremely hard work," says Jaggia. "It is more intensive than any school I have been to, and I've been in school all my life. But the payoff is far more exciting ... to see it's your game and it's your game interacting with you." Ayres echoes the sentiment. "Once you get into it, it's not like work. You're just working on making your project better."

But it's Housden, a lifelong gamer who's dreamed of making video games as long as he can remember, who puts it best: "I love it. Of course it's fun. I'm having the time of my life."

By Moira Muldoon

Moira Muldoon is a senior editor at Computec Media.

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