NJIT Provides Gaming Students With Technical, Hands-On Training

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It isn’t often that parents root for their kids’ “Guitar Hero” skills or encourage them to devote more time to video games, let alone inspire them to focus on gaming as a career path.

Contrary to the unhealthy practices of video game-addicted couch potatoes, however, students who select the recently developed video-game programming concentration at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) develop a background in computer science theory with the practice of applied programming, allowing them to become well-versed in multimedia, including graphic design, game design, level editing and 3-D modeling. They graduate with a greater advantage than their peers in an industry that is growing quickly, even in the face of a potential recession.

Donald J. (D.J.) Kehoe, 28-year-old adjunct professor and assistant to the director for IT at NJIT, heads a 12-class, game-programming concentration that the school officially launched last fall. “[There’s a] high demand from the students, and there’s a growing industry for it,” Kehoe said, “[so] when I had the opportunity to create it, I went for it.”

The school hosted its semi-annual “Game Expo” this month, giving students a chance to show off their proficiency in video-game development, as well as their skill at playing popular video games — from Rock Band and Guitar Hero to Smash Brothers and other fighting games.

“[The atmosphere] is pretty laid-back, except for the occasional outcry of triumph and defeat,” Kehoe said.

Not All Fun and Games
One of the basic skills required of a game programmer is software design. Higher-level programming skills include problem solving, analytical thinking, dealing with target hardware and target markets.

Kehoe designs his classes to give students a command of programming in C and C++, as well as other scripting languages such as UnrealScript, XML, Lua and Python, all of which are commonly used in game development. He also teaches them to write their own programs using programming language C and development libraries.

Students edit existing games, such as one of id Software’s “Quake” games, and make their own 2-D and 3-D games. The more artistic or design-oriented students opt for courses in 3-D modeling animation or level-editing world creation.

Students work on game modification projects and often design games from scratch. “[They] come up with the idea, flesh it out, write it on paper, sometimes on a bar napkin,” Kehoe said. “It’s all part of the design process; figure out what the requirements are for the game. Maybe they’ll use an existing game engine and figure out what the requirements are going to be in terms of content.”

Kehoe is directing five students as they create an educational video game for Pearson Education. The goal is to use the game as a tool or supplement to help reinforce basic reading skills from early to eighth-grade reading. “There are plots [to the game], and throughout the adventure, the players are forced to make reading inferences and predictions and understand what’s going on [within] different types of words,” Kehoe said. “Basically, to play through this game, they’re going to be challenged to understand what’s going on through the reading, through text dialogues, etc.”

Job Opportunities Abound
Many NJIT graduates walk away with the choicest jobs on the market. For instance, one alum is a game designer for Gameloft, a subcompany of Ubisoft, which made “Splinter Cell” and “Assassin’s Creed.” Another graduate will be responsible for maintaining all the games that are developed for T-Mobile.

Greg Wagner, a computer science major who will graduate this semester, has lined up a job programming video, poker and blackjack machines for Gaming Labs International.

But the aptitude NJIT is developing goes beyond the gaming sphere. One of Kehoe’s students will work for a company that handles security for the government, another is programming embedded software for surveillance cameras and still others are working in the media industry.

“We’re not just giving our students a degree in game design, we’re giving them a Bachelor of Science in information technology, which they can then take to the gaming industry or another traditional industry,” Kehoe said.

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