Gaming, Interactive Media Degrees Add to State's Focus on Technology Education

It's the lazy college student cliché: sitting in a dorm room playing video games until 2:30 a.m. But for some students, video games have a new, more productive role.

Degrees focusing on video game development are popping up across the country and at a few universities in Arkansas.

Southern Arkansas University of Magnolia is in its fourth year of offering a game art and animation program, and Arkansas Tech University of Russellville began its interactive media design degree program this fall.

According to Rhaelene Lowther, assistant professor of art at SAU, the first 13 students will graduate from the program in the spring. About 110 students are majoring in game art and animation, working toward either a bachelor of fine arts in art or a bachelor of science in computer science. The two degrees make up a collaborative program for which students in their final year work together to create a video game.

But the skills students learn go beyond video game creation.

"It's actually a pretty competitive industry," Lowther said. "There are a lot of jobs out there when people look beyond games. The video game industry itself is huge — it ranges from huge companies to small, mobile game companies. The skills they learn in a program like this extend into advertising and film and into government contracting even."

SAU has a relationship with CAE Inc.'s Little Rock operation for internships that give students experience outside the classroom. CAE is a Montreal-based simulation technology company that works in civil aviation, the military and helicopter training services.

"We specifically do a mini internship with CAE where students do a couple projects for them and CAE gives feedback on that," Lowther said. "We are trying to build more relationships [with other companies], but it's hard because we don't have a track record until we graduate students."

Although coding and technology education are becoming increasingly common, Lowther said she does not believe there will be an oversaturation of people with these skills in the job market.

"I think the more people who learn it the better — most people are not going to become proficient in it," she said. "It's like everyone in high school learning a foreign language but some people really catch on and appreciate it and it kind of changes their world. And coding is the same way — it's a language. For some people it clicks and they do really well with it, and for others they just become more proficient overall."

At ATU, the interactive media design degree program began this fall and already has 30 students enrolled. About half are incoming freshmen; the others are students who changed their majors.

ATU began developing the major in spring 2015 and received approval in January, according to Jeff Woods, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. The program includes about 30 hours of new core classes. Some of the curriculum includes graphic design and gaming classes, but other courses range from creative writing to computer science and programming.

The new computer lab for the program features high-end graphic cards, software and a three-dimensional printer.

"Obviously in the gaming industry, it's growing and becoming larger every year," Woods said. "We don't have big game design firms in Arkansas — that's one of the things we're hoping to draw to the state."

He said skills students learn through the program — animation, simulation programming and web design — are applicable to other career fields.

"The kind of design software we use for mapping and layout are the same thing Wal-Mart uses to layout stores and do training videos and make educational software," Woods said. "[The skills] crossover to things like television, web design, marketing and advertising."

Since the degree program is new, the school is working to establish relationships with local companies for internships and job placement.

Dustin Simpson, assistant professor of game design, called the degree "a marriage of design, art and programming."

"Each of those skills can stand on its own," Simpson said. "And our classes are heavily project based so you're learning project management skills."