Geeked Out: Edinboro's Game and Virtual World Development Track

Category:  Tech Watch
Wednesday, May 27th, 2015 at 9:08 AM

Edinboro University has a robust art program, but did you know that it also has a highly-rated game design program? Recently my alma mater was ranked 15th in a list of the Top 25 Public Game Design Schools and Colleges nationwide, according to Animation Career Review. 

The program moved up the rankings this year and, with my own ties to the game development industry, I felt compelled to reach out to Edinboro Assistant Professor Dr. Daniel Bennett and find out what some of you aspiring game developers may be missing.

For my podcast Big Sushi, I interview game developers from indie to AAA (a term used in the industry for games with the biggest development budgets) and we often discuss game design curriculum and academia. Traditionally, game developers come from a background in computer science, as programming is often required to actually make games. Edinboro has had computer science (CS) degree programs for a while now, but it wasn’t until roughly seven years ago that the school began implementation of the Game and Virtual World Development track, with the first pair of students graduating this past year. However, Bennett said that the graduating class was much larger this year.

So what makes the Edinboro program special? What is making the school climb the Animation Career Review list? Bennett put it simply, “We decided to build on the strengths of the university.” What Edinboro has over other game design or computer science programs is — and this might be surprising to some — its liberal arts approach. Edinboro has a strong animation program, and has for years. Cross pollinating between the two programs makes for strong and rigorous curriculum.”

“We built the program with classes from our theoretical computer science track, inserted some classes directly aimed at game development, and made elective classes like computer graphics and artificial intelligence a requirement,” Bennett explained. “After that we asked a Computer Animation instructor what classes would be required to allow a programmer to interact with an animator, and added those classes to the program.   Finally we added a physics class.” 

Add in the mixed student projects that allow for students from each program to collaborate and all of a sudden it seems you got the making of a great program. People often underestimate the value a liberal arts education brings to even high technical and specified programs like computer science or game development. First of all “Game Design” is a tricky profession as it includes not only computer science knowledge, but also things like visual design, psychology, philosophy, and communications. 

“[Edinboro’s liberal arts] is absolutely essential,” Bennett said. “We have students working with Psychology professors interested in the effects of immersion, and student projects have drawn cooperation from the student body across the institution especially actors, musicians, and animators.  The liberal education environment exposes students to many other areas and the smaller school personality encourages follow up and interaction based on that exposure.” Take that, liberal arts haters!

Building this track and ensuring it meets industry needs is a high priority for Dr. Bennett. “When we started, there were very few programs out there so there was not much to model off of.” He said, so they simply build on what they had, a strong arts and science degree with a focus on inter-disciplinary communications between programmers and artists and a liberal education. Now with the first graduates hitting the market, the school hopes to get feedback from them to see how to further shape the program. They also had a number of speakers visit the campus and their talks reinforced those goals Bennett and the rest of the faculty established.

If you remember back in April of 2014, I wrote about the Edinboro Game Expo (EGX), which hosts the fine products of the program as well as working with neighboring schools like Penn State Behrend in highlighting the game development possibilities found around Erie. To me, the next big step would be to start hosting a game jam, where programmers, artists, and musicians all come together for a weekend to make a game. Perhaps we could do the Gem City Jam, or the Niagara Jam, with the theme being “Don’t Give Up the Ship!” Actually, that’s not a bad idea…

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