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U of U Games Program Keeps Blasting Through Levels

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If I told you that Utah is the home of the fourth highest concentration per capita of professionals in a specific industry, and that industry added $93.7 million to the state’s economy in 2009 and attained almost a 15% growth from 2005-2009 … what industry would you say it is? Computer chips? Space equipment? Medical equipment?

It’s computer games. And at the University of Utah, it’s a force with which to be reckoned. The U’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering (EAE) program just started its Master Games Studio in the fall of 2010. Just six months into its first year, the graduate program already has been ranked at #6 in the nation by Princeton Review. The undergrad program, which started in 2007, was ranked at the #2 spot, just behind USC.

“The University of Utah has always produced high quality computer science graduates.  And now, with the school’s focus on digital media, students are cross-trained with art and design giving them an edge for a career in games development.”

–Rob Nelson, Director of Technology
Avalanche Software, Disney Interactive Studios

Why games? Why now? Well, contrary to popular belief*, computer games are not just entertainment-based. Computer games are used in many different ways by many different organizations…some that are fun; some not so much.

We all know about Utah-born “Angry Birds,” popular “World of Warcraft” and Facebook’s “Farmville.” But, did you know about “Darfur is Dying?” Developed by the humanitarian arms of MTV and Reebok, this game was created to bring awareness to the genocide in Darfur. In it, a player figures out how to overcome challenges to the survival of his/her refugee camp set in Darfur.

A game was also developed by the World Food Organization (a $2m feat) in which players can move food around the world to supply starving communities.

Companies like Cold Stone Creamery use games to train employees how to mix the right ingredients for your next ice-cold treat. Not only is this a great way to keep employees attentive, it provides training with very little overhead and helps create efficient business practices.

The myriad uses of computer games are exactly why this industry is so important to Utah. Where else do we find science, art and technology rolled into a perfect package with a $10 billion (yes, billion with a “b”) price tag? Movies? You’re right. Only the games industry has surpassed the film industry now.

The people in the EAE Master Games Studio are keenly aware of the merits of games, the importance of the industry to Utah and its potential to reach many levels of the population.  Thankfully, so is USTAR (Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative), which has invested in the Digital Media USTAR cluster that integrates engineering and fine arts academics in order to tap into the local software industry, estimated at representing 50% of new venture capital funding in the state.

“With a long history of game development, Salt Lake City is emerging as one of the game development hubs in North America. EA is proud to have had a role in providing critical input to the university’s video game curriculum and working directly with its students. Providing real-world lessons and insuring the quality of University of Utah graduates make it possible for us to build talented development teams to create remarkable hit games and new possibilities for our company.”

– Benjamin Bell, Executive Producer
EA Salt Lake

The games program at the U of U builds upon a history of graphic design, technological advancement and entrepreneurship that sets the university apart from its peer institutions.

The U of U is the alma mater of giants in the digital industry like Ed Catmull, David Evans and Nolan Bushnell. It is the birthplace of the “Utah Teapot,” a standard in the graphics design community. The state of Utah is a new home to Electronic Arts, Disney Interactive Studios, Chair Entertainment/Epic Games and many other game development, animation and digital media companies.

The proximity of these heavy-hitters in game development and digital arts means that our students not only benefit from real-life pitches with real industry people as part of their first semester, but they also enter a network of professionals who are anxious to build up their workforce.

These times are just as exciting as ever in the world of technological development. Just as the U of U was involved in the first days of the Internet, we sit at the crest of another transformative time. One thing is certain: our storied history is still being written…and people are taking notice!

For more information on the Entertainment Arts and Engineering program, visit


*Full disclosure: until a couple of months ago, the author operated under this assumption too