WASHINGTON – One of the first lessons for students at Maryland high schools and colleges that offer courses in video-game development is that fun and games isn’t all fun and games.
“It sounds like fun to work on games, but soon the kids realize this is real work,” said Paul Lombardy, CEO of Parkville-based Enlight.
But school officials said that does not dampen demand for the courses, and the ready supply of workers their programs produce is just one of the reasons why Maryland has become one of the country’s centers of video game development.
From the beginning, gaming companies worked with universities here to find talented art and programming students. Over the years, gaming education options continued to grow to the point that even high schools are jumping in now.
About 200 students in three Baltimore County schools are now taking their electives in animation and by the time they graduate they will have already created a computer game, said Charlene Bonham, manager of career and technology education for the county’s public schools.
“Their ideas are tremendous,” said Wrae Wene, teacher at Eastern Technical High School. “They have been playing video games for so long that it’s part of their formation. But they try to accomplish more than they can at this level.”
Unlike the skills needed for other art or computer classes, computer gamers commonly need code writing, interactive environments, video production, computer-generated animation and developing storyboards, among other talents.
Developing a game like “Joan of Arc,” which recreates historic battles, takes history research, story-telling techniques, design artists, computer programming and other skills.
“We encourage college education, not to make education too technological,” said Doug Whatley, CEO of Breakaway Games in Hunt Valley. “We need that liberal arts education.”
Teachers are finding that it is new territory for them, as well. Wene, for example, said that for 19 years she has been constantly doing self study to keep up with all the technological innovations.
Once the students graduate from programs like Wene’s, they should be able to work in an entry-level position with any of the video game developers in the state, usually testing games. Or they can continue their education on the university level, Wene said.
In this area, the University of Baltimore and the Community College of Baltimore County have developed programs in multimedia technology. And the University of Maryland Baltimore County recently opened a Computer Certification Training Center, one of just 14 such centers in the country. The centers, which offer training and testing in effects and animation, are run by a Montreal firm and recognized by industry groups as the standard for such training.
Baltimore County is also marketing itself as a technology-friendly place to do business, said David Iannucci, executive director of the county Department of Economic Development, and has set up partnerships with some gaming companies.
Despite those efforts, Wene said companies must still sometimes turn down contracts for lack of skilled people.
“We all have put down contracts because we couldn’t put up the team,” Whatley said. But he added that the area also has very talented people.
“There is not a day when we’re not looking for more qualified people,” he said.
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