Program Upgrade: Introducing ‘Game Design and Interactive Media’

November 3, 2020

The Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) first launched its Computer Game Science (CGS) degree in 2011, the same year Minecraft was released, and it has served students well over the years. By 2017, College Magazine had named UCI the #1 school for gamers. However, as the degree now enters its second decade on campus, the Department of Informatics knew it was time for an upgrade.

“The game development field is really fast moving,” says Informatics Professor Katie Salen Tekinbaş, a fellow of the Higher Education Video Game Alliance who helped revamp the CGS major. “The field just looks really different today from how it looked when the degree was originally developed.”

Recently revised and renamed, the B.S. degree offering for students applying for fall 2021 and beyond is now called Game Design and Interactive Media (GDIM).

Cutting-Edge Game Development
Salen Tekinbaş led the effort to update the program, partnering with informatics colleagues and working closely with the CGS steering committee and others in ICS and across campus to address feedback from students, ICS alumni and industry representatives.

“The original curriculum was very solid but lacked flexibility,” explains Salen Tekinbaş. “[The revised] curriculum was designed to be more flexible and responsive to changes in the field.” There are many more electives and special topics courses, and, notably, the program includes “an increased emphasis on design and development.” CGS students graduating between now and 2024 can also leverage the new curriculum, strengthening their design skills to address ongoing shifts in industry.

Ten years ago, most graduating CGS majors went on to become programmers or engineers at game development studios; today’s graduates are now seeking jobs not only in game development but also in interactive media. The emergence of cross-platform game engines such as Unity and Unreal and a growing interest in AR/VR has created a greater demand for design literacy in addition to technical skills. Staying on the cutting edge of game development thus required adding an element of design as well as better balancing the social and technical aspects of the program.

“The major is upgrading from a major that was really about computer science and computer science skills to a major that is more in line with the traditional focus of informatics, which is how people and computers come together,” explains Informatics Professor Aaron Trammell. “To thrive as a game designer today you need to understand people, and this is the game major that will help you do that as well as give you the technical skills needed.”

Introducing GDIM
While the technical rigor remains, students will no longer wait until their junior year to start designing games. “Right from day one, you’re going to be learning game programming in the context of making games and learning to work in teams,” says Salen Tekinbaş. By the time students graduate, they will have a robust portfolio of both single- and multiplayer games.

This is crucial in an era where game designers are now in demand at media companies looking to produce more interactive and immersive experiences. “We want to be able to train and prepare students to understand key principles of interactive design and issues around data science and user behavior,” says Salen Tekinbaş. “We want students to understand how to program for what we would call ‘playable environments’ so they don’t necessarily have to go into game development; there’s a whole range of career options open to them.” Such options include everything from a game or systems designer at a game development studio, to an interactive media designer or quality assurance engineer for a media company, to an AR/VR developer for a theater company.

Furthermore, broadening the program scope should simultaneously boost efforts to recruit and retain a broader range of students. “By adding this design element and moving away from a kind of strictly CS-oriented degree, we’re hoping to attract and support a more diverse population of students that is more representative of the UCI population,” says Salen Tekinbaş. “We know from research that in order to retain a non-traditional tech student, you need to bring them into a cohort model where they’re in smaller classes, with a more consistent group of students, building that community early on.”

The GDIM curriculum will include introductory courses in four core areas, so, in addition to a foundational sequence on computer programming and data science, courses will be offered in

  • design and development, involving robust iteration and playtesting;
  • world building, focused on visual design, character development and interactive storytelling; and
  • games and society, which will examine how games operate culturally.

The program will still conclude with the two-quarter capstone course, ensuring students have the real-world skills necessary to thrive in industry.

Screenshots of games developed as part of the 2019-2020 Computer Game Science capstone course (from left): Bombs Away, Alone Together and Do or Die.

Developing Next-Generation Designers
The revamped GDIM program is ready to empower the next generation of designers and developers, giving them the tools and training needed to reshape the field with innovative and inclusive games and other playable media experiences.

“Our major is trying to emphasize all the different ways that games resonate with different people,” says Trammell. “The new curriculum is strong, cutting edge and will make tomorrow’s game industry leaders.”

Shani Murray