northeasternseattleTayloe Washburn gets excited when talking about Seattle as a gaming hub. He also knows how many people play video games — 170 million — and what that could mean for the education and healthcare spaces.

So it comes as no surprise that Northeastern University’s Seattle branch is introducing a new program that focuses on gaming.

“The gaming industry is a submarine industry here,” said Washburn, the university’s CEO and dean. “You don’t hear too much about it, but it’s doubled in the last five years. That’s very exciting, and it relates to computer science, which is one of the principal reasons Northeastern is here.”

Northeastern-Seattle Dean Tayloe Washburn.
Northeastern-Seattle Dean Tayloe Washburn.

Northeastern University is based in Boston, but set up a graduate school near the Amazon offices in South Lake Union this past January, becoming Washington’s first private research university. The school is designed to offer high-demand graduate degrees that fill Seattle’s critical needs.

One of those, says Washburn, is gaming. There are nearly 100 game companies that have set up shop here, including Valve, Nintendo, Microsoft, 343 Industries, Big Fish, PopCap, Bungie, WildTangent, Z2, U4iA, and several more of which are ranked on the GeekWire 200, our monthly startup index tracking the Seattle region’s technology companies.

Washburn, a prominent lawyer and former chair of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, thinks that the region can be a national leader in the the area interactive video games and using games to help solve social needs and find cures for diseases.

He does realize, however, that one challenge to overcome is the business model for such projects. Speaking at a Northeastern panel last month about developing a business model for interactive video games, Jason Robar noted the difficulty in finding consistent government backing.

“None of the government funding has been bulit around iteration,” he said. “It’s all about finding the one best hammer, and it’s hard to get the best breed with that model.”

Interactive video games is also a relatively new space and it’s tough to get investors to believe in the idea that video games can really be of educational and social benefit. But Washburn is hopeful that organizations like insurance companies and school districts can carve out a portion of their budget to allow for experimentation with video games in schools.

northeasternvideogames
Magy Seif El-Nasr, Jeff Pobst, Jason Robar and John Williamson speak on a Northeastern panel last month about developing a business model for interactive video games.

“It’s all about redefining what adds value,” he said.

And once the funding comes, whether it’s via investors, foundations or institutions, Washburn knows Seattle can be a leader in the area with the game design and development talent already here.

“I’m confident about that,” he said. “If we can fund sustained funding, we won’t have a problem finding people.”

Here’s the gaming degree description from Northeastern:

MPS Digital Media with a concentration in Game Design expects students to have some programming experience, but only enough to be able to create small game prototypes. They also receive game-specific programming training within the degree program.

Students who come in with more programming experience may be able to use that experience to create more complex projects while in the program, but similarly, students who come in with some prior visual art experience may be able to create simpler games that focus more heavily on aesthetics.                                      

As more and more companies demand game designers who can also program or also create art or also do project management and fewer and fewer companies seek out “pure” game designers, Northeastern is working to build a degree that will help students to leverage their past training while developing new skills focused on game design and development.

digipenNortheastern isn’t the first Seattle-area school to offer game design degrees, as Redmond’s DigiPen University already has nationally-recognized programs geared toward budding gamers. Program director Jay Taylor Laird said that Northeastern’s offerings, while similar, allow for students from a broad range of educational experiences to learn about game design.

“For example, psychology majors or arts majors who bring the skills of understanding human behavior or have special creative gifts may be accepted with the understanding that they will learn the necessary programming in the courses,” Laird said.

Required courses include classes like “Visual Communications Foundations,” and “Sound Design,” while electives range from “3D video,” to “Interactive Design.”

Northeastern will have more information about the program on its website later this summer. Those interested in the program can contact Gina Takasugi, Assistant Director Admissions Recruitment and Student Services, at g.takasugi@neu.edu.

Previously on GeekWire: What makes Seattle such an awesome gaming city? 

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