UBC course puts video games at the forefront

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      The University of British Columbia’s department of computer science hit a milestone this month when its first-ever course in programming video games wrapped up. The class, simply entitled Computer Science 319: Software Projects, was designed and taught by Kimberly Voll, an award-winning lecturer and full-time faculty member. She explained to the Georgia Straight that video-game development hadn’t been taught in her department before primarily because its focus to provide a “strong computer-science education—and I think we do that very well”.

      In a phone interview, Voll admitted the department does respond to external pressures that can come from students and potential employers. “I think in the last four or five years, those pressures have shifted more towards video games, digital media,” she said. “And the students coming through our doors are certainly looking more for those kinds of experiences.”

      A showcase of the 10 games developed over the course of the semester was held in early April, and drew faculty as well as representatives from the game industry. Ed Knorr, a senior instructor in the department, said he got his degree “when Pong was state-of-the-art”. He never expected video games to take off the way they have. “I didn’t expect the quality of games to be so high. I didn’t realize there would be so much money in the industry,” he told the Straight after trying one of the games at the showcase. “I’m blown away by the passion and creativity,” he said, looking around the room.

      There were 59 students—including 12 women—in the one-semester class, and while many enrolled because they aspire to enter the video-game world, not all shared that ambition. Tina Wang said she was simply interested in trying something different. “There’s so much more to take into account,” she said, “networking, graphics, AI [artificial intelligence]. There’s a wide range of things a programmer can do.” Wang wouldn’t have considered a career in games before taking the course, but isn’t hesitant about the idea now.

      Voll, who has been teaching at UBC for six years, has a PhD from Simon Fraser University. She has no formal training in video games, but has been designing her own since she learned the BASIC programming language from library books to make ticktacktoe on a TI-99 (an early home computer manufactured by Texas Instruments in the early ’80s). Despite that early experience, she never considered using her degree to work in the video-game industry. “I felt I needed to put away such childish things,” she admitted. Voll’s since rekindled that passion.

      In addition to pushing video games onto the UBC comp-sci curriculum, Voll is a Vancouver coordinator for the Global Game Jam, which has grown from 30 participants in 2009 to 150 in 2012, 80 of them UBC students. “It’s very clear that our students want this and need this,” she said.

      And although this first course offering is considered a trial, Voll is optimistic. “Once we’ve got one or two successful offerings, then I think we’ll be able to take it forward to become a permanent part of the course calendar,” she said. As to whether UBC has lost potential students due to the lack of a video-game-programming class, Voll said there’s no way of knowing. “But certainly I think we have the potential to attract more students because of this.”