Thirty years ago, Jason Chu was there when the DigiPen Institute of Technology started with the idea of using video games as a teaching tool. Today, the COO of the Redmond, Wash.-based institution calls his workplace a higher-education leader in game development, computer science, computer engineering and digital arts.
Chu, our latest Geek of the Week, helped DigiPen founder Claude Comair get up and running in Vancouver, B.C., in 1988 by providing training for architects, engineers and aspiring students who wanted to become computer animators and game developers. The school established its main campus in Redmond in 1998 and in 1999 Chu assumed his role overseeing daily campus operations and driving continued growth.
DigiPen counts industry leaders among its graduates — Michael Pagano Doom (Built Games) to Patrick Hackett (Tilt Brush), Nate Martin (Puzzle Break), Kim Swift (Portal, Amazon Games), Tara Jauregui (PopCap Games, “Bejeweled Blitz”) — and Chu has watched as technology and culture have reshaped typical behavior over the years.
“Our students have grown up with terabytes of information through the internet, social media, electronic gadgets, etc.,” Chu said. “They are ‘power users’ of technology. Therefore, the way they learn is very different from the way I learned when I was a student. Students nowadays learn from utilizing different media (audio/visual, VR experience, etc.). Due to the fact that they are familiar with these tools of learning, and the opportunities of applying what they learn into practice at DigiPen, they become ‘power learners’ as well.
“Our students are also more opinionated about how certain software and hardware tools should be modified or refined for the next generation,” he added.
In another 30 years, the school — which now has campuses in Singapore and Spain — will continue to teach the fundamentals of math and science to help students apply them to the relevant industries of the time. Chu said that applications of technology will change quickly — “but the foundations of knowledge rarely change.”
And there is clearly fun involved in the business of teaching game development and more. While Chu remarks on the impact of the “Mario Bros” franchise in one of our questions below, he said his access at the school allows him to play many types of games on different consoles.
“I enjoyed the ‘Burnout’ series of racing games. It was fast-paced and yet relatively easy to maneuver. After all, crashing in the game is much more fun than in real life,” Chu said. “I still enjoy classic games such as ‘Pac Man,’ ‘Tetris’ and ‘Street Fighter.’ These games bring back so many memories of my youth!”
Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Jason Chu:
What do you do, and why do you do it? I oversee the overall operations of DigiPen’s operations internationally, with the help of a great management team at each of the three campuses (Redmond, Wash., Singapore and Bilbao, Spain). I started as one of the teachers at DigiPen. As the operations grew, the founder felt that I was more suitable for looking after the business than teaching. I was put in charge of business operations and development. This includes looking after the legal, financial, administrative affairs of DigiPen.
At first, I thought education was simply providing instructions to students in a computer lab or a classroom. As I was put in charge of the business operations, I started to learn that in order to put qualified students and qualified faculty in a classroom and to ensure that when students graduate, they can be gainfully employed in a field of their dreams, a significant amount of human resources and financial resources are needed. This is what makes my job interesting and challenging at the same time.
Just like many of the staff and faculty, the reason we enjoyed working at DigiPen is having the satisfaction to see the young people getting the education they long for since childhood and to see that they find jobs in the industries in which they adore and aspire. It’s even more amazing when we meet them 10-15 years later and learn that they become leaders of the industries.
In my 30 years of working at DigiPen, I can’t think of a day that I didn’t feel like going to work.
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? In the field of interactive digital entertainment, many people are confused about the roles of users and developers. I have heard countless number of times that an individual would say, “My child/relative/friend is such a great game player and he/she can hit such high scores in such and such games, he/she should study at your school!” It is important to understand that a great game player is not necessarily a great game developer. To develop an interactive software product, one needs to master numerous subjects that are relevant to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics). On the other hand, a great game player usually requires to master their hand-eye coordination and use of strategies.
Where do you find your inspiration? I usually find my inspiration from students of all ages. I would talk to children from time to time and ask them what they want to be when they grow up in order to understand what the future generation thinks is relevant to them and what is the best way for them to learn. I would talk to teenagers to understand how they feel the current technology affects the way they think about their future careers. I would also talk to college students who study at DigiPen to understand what we are doing right and what we need to improve on.
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? The GPS. After many years of attempt, I finally came to realize that I am lacking a sense of direction. With the GPS, I could finally find a cure!
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I have a rather large office. It is divided into three sections:
- The work area, where I work on the computer
- The meeting area, where I meet all the important people from within the building and from around the world.
- The seating area, where I meet with business visitors who prefer more comfortable seating.
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) There are many, but I will mention two of the most important ones in my opinion:
- Always talk about your challenges with someone you trust and who is willing to listen. Very often, I find that if I am able to verbalize my challenges or difficulties, I am on my way to finding solutions to them.
- Maintain regular exercise, at least 4 times a week. This will help you build a strong body, heart and mind. This will also help you build self-confidence and be tough enough to face the many surprises that may come your way each day.
Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac all the way. I like the simplicity of Apple’s products. They are truly “plug-and-play.”
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Kirk. He seems to know what he is doing the most.
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Definitely time machine. I always wanted to see the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Start an elementary school where kids can be taught properly by teachers who truly care about the children’s learning and not just teaching from a rigid curriculum.
I once waited in line for … a pair of glasses to watch the solar eclipse in 2017.
Your role models: My mother. Despite the extreme difficulties she experienced growing up in a poor village in China, she didn’t complaint to anyone and just accepted whatever that came her way with courage and hard work. She loves and supports her children in their pursuit of happiness, even if it meant things that she didn’t understand.
Greatest game in history: The purpose of a game is to entertain and inspire. Using these criteria, I would say the greatest game in history was “Mario Bros.” Countless children have enjoyed playing the game and were inspired to become game makers because of this game.
Best gadget ever: The smart phone. It is a killer device, which eliminates the need for many other portable gadgets. It is my GPS, PDA, camera, news reporter, banking tool, calculator, music player, game console, and I can even call my mother with it!
First computer: My IBM PC/AT 80286, 6MHz, coupled with a monochrome monitor with a whopping 20MB hard disk and a 3.5” floppy disk. I got a loan from DigiPen to pay for it. I upgraded to a color monitor about a year later with a bonus from DigiPen.
Current phone: iPhone 7 Plus. Couldn’t get used to the new gestures of iPhone X.
Favorite app: “Maps” on the iPhone. Again, love the GPS function.
Favorite cause: Helping the homeless to get back on their feet through the Union Gospel Mission.
Most important technology of 2018: Health predictions through DNA testing. This technology can help people analyze the risks of developing certain diseases in their later stages in life and therefore take measures to prevent them.
Most important technology of 2020: Artificial intelligence becomes more mature and being used to enhance business outcomes on a regular basis. Hopefully self-driving vehicles can be a step closer to being the norm by then!
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Living in a time where information is constantly available through network connections on our mobile devices, we may be tempted to spend too much time on our screens rather than on the people and scenery around us. I always remind myself that while the news and messages on my phone are interesting or maybe even important, they should not be the reason for me to neglect the people around me.
Twitter: Haven’t started using Twitter, maybe never will.
LinkedIn: Jason Chu