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* Social and Behavioral Research Lab

Students compete to see who can beat the bongos in sync with action on the video screen. They are located in Rensselaer's Social and Behavioral Research Lab, where professors can observe their interaction with the games. Photo by Stewart Cairns.

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Bala started the company when he was 15 years old, in the days before CD-ROM, 3-D graphics, and the Internet. The teenager was drawing backdrops by hand and scanning them at Kinko’s and attending game developer conferences. “I put on a suit and tie and no one knew,” says Bala, at 30 an elder statesman of his profession. “I had to do what it took. No one was teaching this.”

Typical of students who entered college in the 1990s, Bala grew up hooked on interactive entertainment. But unlike most, he went into the business before he finished high school. Colleges were not teaching game making and, in fact, students were largely ahead of their professors. At Rensselaer, however, Bala got a rigorous grounding in the academics — majoring in computer science and psychology — along with support from professors eager to help him cultivate his business.

He developed and published his first game in Rensselaer’s Incubator Center and it was there that he nurtured what would become a multimillion-dollar venture. He and his brother, Guha Bala, recently sold Vicarious Visions to Activision, the world’s second largest game maker. But the brothers will remain as the company’s leaders, Karthik as CEO and Guha as president, and they will stay close to Rensselaer.

“Rensselaer is uniquely positioned to provide great talent to the next generation of game developers because of the way it brings together the arts, technology, and psychology,” says Bala, who draws about a third of his staff from the Institute.

In the years since Bala graduated, Rensselaer has formalized its commitment to interactive game design. A precursor was the Electronic Media, Arts, and Communication (EMAC) program — launched a decade ago — which uses technology to merge art and communications (and the departments that represent those disciplines). Five years ago, Kathleen Ruiz, associate professor of integrated electronic arts, taught her first video games class, titled Games and Guts, in which she challenged students to come up with a game that did not center on violence. At the same time, Marc Destefano, clinical assistant professor of cognitive science, was planning game design courses. “The students said it would be great if we could talk to each other,” says Ruiz. “It was the students’ energy that made it happen.”

* "Synergy" game

The "Synergy" game, created by Rensselaer students, is an experiment in cooperative gaming that aims to encourage interaction among players as well as physical activity. Photo by Stewart Cairns.

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Ralph Noble, associate professor of cognitive science, collaborated with Ruiz and Destefano on a game studies minor, which was introduced last fall. Now a working group of faculty is developing a major in this area. The new discipline will take students through rigorous core courses before they select an interdisciplinary concentration, which can include combinations of social science, engineering, arts, psychology, managment, and science classes. As a result, game design students will be knowledgeable in a range of areas, not just focused on the entertainment game field.

Today, “games” are associated with leisure time. But month by month the equation is changing. Interactive technology is being devised to help elementary students learn. National defense strategies are mapped out as computer simulations. Fitness, biomedicine, and anti-terrorism training are all subjects for so-called serious games. There are games that teach Japanese; even world peace. On campuses, for instance, students create games to promote dialogue between feuding ethnic groups, or use them to challenge players to go through life as a member of a racial minority.

“We’re encouraging our students to play an active role in shaping the future of this evolving genre, not learn an industry, but shape it as time goes by,” says Ruiz. “The games program encourages intense, interdisciplinary teamwork, which of course is necessary to solve some of the new complex problems in medicine, biotech, and the environment.”

While these graduates will be able to take their place as the first degree “specialists,” Rensselaer graduates have made significant contributions to game design before it was even considered a technology field. From “Pong” to “DOOM,” alumni have helped to invent or improve “downloadables,” hand-held, subscriber-based, communal, and casual games — often before there was a blueprint for any of it.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

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