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Looking Inside the NYU Game Center

As more and more schools around the globe offer game-design degrees, wannabe game makers have a variety of programs to choose from. Many schools offer vocational programs, but nowadays the academic and creative aspects of game design are also coming into play. Here, we take a look at the Game Center at New York University, one of the newest game design programs that take the latter approach.

By Tracey John

As more and more schools around the globe offer game-design degrees, wannabe game makers have a variety of programs to choose from. Many schools offer vocational programs, but nowadays the academic and creative aspects of game design are also coming into play. Here, we take a look at the Game Center at New York University, one of the newest game design programs that take the latter approach. A New Approach to Games Education The NYU Game Center was established in 2008 as part of an initiative to have a game-focused area of study at NYU. Jointly housed within the acclaimed Tisch School of the Arts and the Polytechnic Institute of New York University in Brooklyn, the NYU Game Center offers courses that are available to undergraduate and graduate students. “I think it’s wonderful for us to be side by side with other art forms like the television, theater, music, dance and the famous film program,” says Eric Zimmerman, a veteran game designer and a faculty member of the NYU Game Center. “Our focus at the Game Center is games as a creative form, games as an aesthetic form and games as a form of cultural expression. So just as a film student might come to NYU because they want to be an innovative filmmaker, you would come to NYU to study games because you want to be an innovative game-maker. We’re really trying to treat games the way you would treat film or art history.” There are three areas of study that students can focus on: game design, production and scholarship. The game design courses teach the fundamentals of game design, including what makes a game a game, how games work, and how students can create meaningful experiences for players. These classes, explains Zimmerman, are “off the computer,” meaning that students will be making card games, board games, physical games and social games. In contrast, the production courses, held at NYU Polytechnic’s Brooklyn campus, allow students to collaboratively create digital games with access to traditional computer labs and tools.

The classes on game scholarship have students studying games like they would study literature. “You’re studying games as text, reading theories about them and looking at them critically,” explains Zimmerman. “There is obviously a lot of overlap between design, production and scholarship, but I don’t think there’s another academic program that has this weird and wonderful depth and diversity of looking at games the way we’re doing it here at the NYU Game Center.” Zimmerman also adds that they’ve just introduced a new prerequisite course called Games 101, in which students learn the history of games, similar to an art history class. It begins with ancient board games and sports and then leads to current digital and tabletop games. “What we realized in our other courses is that while students might know about some games, like hardcore first-person shooters, they might not really play casual games or German strategy board games,” says Zimmerman. “Students will play a lot of games over the course of Games 101 and learn the history of games and how any individual game fits into the larger picture.” There are several hundred students enrolled in the NYU Game Center’s curriculum, and the program currently only offers an undergraduate minor. However, Zimmerman says that the faculty is working on putting together a Master’s degree program for the near future. And although the courses are only available to enrolled NYU students, the Game Center also offers lectures by top game scholars, developers and designers -- recently featuring developers from Valve and thatgamecompany -- as well as various tournaments, exhibitions and film series. “What we’re trying to do at the Game Center is look at games not just as a kind of vocational program, but to really celebrate the fan culture of games and how people are actually playing them,” notes Zimmerman. “Then we try to integrate that with learning the craft of game design and development while looking at the scholarly study of games. I think it’s quite unique what we’re doing here, and we’re just getting started with something that hopefully will be quite wonderful.” Attracting Big Names The program is still too young to have graduated notable alumni, but the faculty includes a list of respected game designers and academics: Director Frank Lantz, who runs Area/Code, which recently became Zynga New York; Jesper Juul, a world-renowned game theorist who was the first person ever to get a doctorate in game studies; Katherine Isbister, an associate professor at NYU Poly who has published several books on character design and human-computer interaction; and Zimmerman himself, the 16-year veteran who founded Gamelab, the makers of the hit casual game Diner Dash. “We have a really strong faculty, and we also make use of adjuncts from the local community,” he says. “We do a huge amount, considering that we’re just getting started. At the same time, we are trying to do what we can for the local game community and also establish a world-class game program.” Advice for Potential Students Zimmerman encourages anyone who is interested in studying at the Game Center to contact NYU admissions; he also recommends taking courses through the College of Arts and Science, the Gallatin School of Individualized Study or the Tisch School of the Arts. But be warned: NYU’s Game Center is not like most other game design programs. “I think for students that want a career in the game industry, this is a great place to come and learn -- but we’re definitely not a vocational school,” he says. “We’re not trying to have students working on the latest technology package that all the big studios are using now. We are really focused more on trying to have students develop the craft of what they’re doing, develop their own voice as creative practitioners, rather than just come here and learn job skills.” “There’s certainly a place in the world for more vocational programs,” he adds, “but there are plenty of other schools doing that. I think there are fewer schools trying to do the more ambitious integration of scholarship, design and production that we’re doing. And the great thing about where we’re headed is that we are expanding; every year we’re adding new classes, and we’re just going to get bigger and have more and more options as the years go forward. We’re definitely here to stay.”

Tracey John has written about video games, technology and comics for Wired, MTV and Time Inc. Her work has also appeared in Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Escapist, Wizard and The New York Post, among other publications. When she’s not writing, she’s probably reading comics and baking cookies in her Brooklyn apartment, where she lives happily with her myriad consoles.