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Education really is a game for new-degree EWU grad

Marc Emerson displays one of his creations in the EWU multimedia lab.  
 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Marc Emerson displays one of his creations in the EWU multimedia lab. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Most college students write papers or take tests for their final class projects.

For one of his, Marc Emerson created a computer-animated, disembodied head of Mel Gibson, under glass, giving a thunderous speech from “Braveheart.”

“Lip-syncing is so time-consuming,” Emerson said. “But when you get it done, it’s pretty cool.”

Lip-syncing and other techniques of computer animation haven’t traditionally been a part of college curricula, but that’s starting to change. Today, Emerson will earn the first bachelor’s degree from Eastern Washington University’s game-design program, a subject that is beginning to creep into academia driven in large part by the speedy growth of the $10 billion video-game market.

“We’re hoping it’s a big growth,” said Stu Steiner, a computer science instructor who helped develop the program at Eastern.

Emerson, of Oregon City, Ore., will be one of several firsts for Eastern at Saturday’s commencement exercises. EWU will confer its first bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering, and gender and women’s studies, along with its first master’s in occupational therapy.

After completing a master’s in computer science, Emerson hopes to move on to a career in computer animation for video games or movies.

Like many in his generation, Emerson, 24, grew up with a nearly lifelong familiarity with video games. He remembers getting the original Nintendo system as a child, and he grew into a devoted gamer by high school, when he also began playing around with animation software.

“At first I just picked it up as a hobby,” he said. “It just thought it was fun.”

Emerson took animation classes at Portland Community College, and was interested in the subject when he transferred to EWU. Studying in the computer science department, he knew about the plans to add a game design degree and had a jump-start on the degree when Eastern started the program a year ago.

Eastern’s game-design option falls under its B.A. in computer science. The program officially began last year, and there’s been steady interest from students, Steiner said.

“In the course of a year, we’ve seen between 25 and 35 students sign up for the degree – in various aspects,” he said.

Students can major in game design and animation, or add classes as a minor or an emphasis, Steiner said.

Emerson said working on animation has shown him that designing games is a whole lot more work than playing them. One of the short pieces in his computerized portfolio – alongside Mel’s head and a spoof of a PSA for robots – shows a flashy sports car zooming around an underground parking garage.

He said he spent roughly 100 hours on the 32-second animated scene.

“In high school I played video games all the time,” he said. “Not so much lately, because I don’t have the time.”

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