Who would have thought playing hours of video games a day in high school would better prepare them for college?
For those with a love of video gaming, George Mason University is now offering a venue to take it to the next level: a bachelor's degree in video game design.
While some universities discipline their students in the visual and performing arts of the past, George Mason professors have tasked their students to form the art of the future, combining creativity with technology.
The program, Computer Game Design, takes the passive art experience -- looking at or listening to pieces -- and makes it interactive, said Scott M. Martin, assistant dean for Technology, Research and Advancement at George Mason University.
Course titles under the program include "Culture and Theory of Games," a class that explores the theory, history, culture and lore of computer games. Other courses under the degree requirement focus on computer programming, digital arts and graphics, and motion capture, which digitally records body or facial movements by actors or dancers.
"Our program truly combines all the arts," Martin said. "Obviously visual arts, but also dance and script-writing are a part of it, and music ... while including the sciences."
While the university's goal was to bring program enrollment up to 110 students by 2012, he said, the school has already surpassed that, with about 200 currently enrolled.
"We've been overwhelmed," Martin said. "Our anticipated enrollment for the fall is 500 percent higher than we expected."
GMU Dean of Admissions Andrew Flagel said: "The Game Design Program is wildly popular. We are receiving inquiries from around the world, and applications at every level have been very strong."
Besides stealing incoming freshmen from other schools, Mason's program has seen a steady number of transfer students, majoring in either arts or technology, hoping to take their love for video games to the next level.
One such student is Robinson Secondary School senior Ramez Hashlamon, 17, who currently takes animation classes at Fairfax Academy's professional graphics studio, part of the county's public school system.
"For me, it was between [Virginia Commonwealth University] and GMU," he said. "VCU is known as an arts school, so their program is established and the curriculum gets recycled every year. Mason is a growing program, so I could shape my own curriculum and the program."
Hashlamon is more interested in the animation side of video gaming, and said he is leaning toward a career in film animation. Still, the flexibility and scope of courses offered under GMU's program is more appealing to him, he said.
The professional gaming community is also taking notice.
"There have been a lot of game design programs popping up all over the place in the last decade. A lot of schools are focusing on specific areas, like game design," said veteran game writer Bob Bates, who co-founded Legend Entertainment, a computer game development company, and has written about the business of game development. "You run into a problem where kids aren't getting the full picture. Then they get out of school and find out that they don't like the game industry."
GMU instructors, he said, are making the effort to provide a well-rounded education.
"The fact that they've had the vision to address the full student -- that's interesting to me," he said. "It's not a trade school on video gaming. It's how to make an art form of gaming."
Regions like the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area are becoming known important market areas for gaming - notably Bethesda Softworks in Maryland, a company that created games like the "Elder Scrolls" and "Fallout" series.
Serious games -- like those used to train military and special operations, doctors and other simulator-driven industries -- could become a market force in the region, especially because of its proximity to federal government centers, Bates said.
GMU is positioning its program to address future needs, said Eugene Evans, general manager of Bioware Mythic, a Fairfax-based studio that is part of Electronic Arts.
"Gaming has been shifting from Silicon Valley. More and more companies are looking to take advantage of the excellent gaming courses that ... draw in talent," he said. "There are probably a dozen gaming companies in the mid-Atlantic region.
"This course bodes well for the future of gaming in this region. The team at GMU is putting a strong emphasis on a broad set of disciplines and instilling an entrepreneurial spirit -- which could mean many new start-ups within a few years."
That is the goal, said Martin, who put together Mason's program.
"I see results of this program really stimulating a new industry in Northern Virginia, transforming our economy," he said.
More information about the new Computer Game Design Program can be found on the university's Web site at www.GMU.edu.