Teaching Award Winner Robert R. Kessler Gave U. of Utah a Video Game Degree Program. Now It’s Among Best in the World. ‘Students Loved It.’

By Lori Cameron
Published 06/04/2019
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Robert Kessler is a professor in the school of computing at the University of Utah, and there he did something remarkably innovative: He created a new academic program devoted to gaming.

Dr. Kessler founded the Entertainment Arts and Engineering program first for undergraduates in 2007. Students can earn a Bachelor of Science in Games degree. It then became an official university program with its own master’s degree in 2010.

Now the program is ranked in the Top 5 best video game design programs in the world.

How Utah’s Gaming Degree Program Became a Powerhouse

For his outstanding contributions to interdisciplinary computing education and fruitful undergraduate teaching activity, Kessler was recently chosen to receive the 2019 Computer Science and Engineering Undergraduate Teaching Award, which will be formally awarded to him in June.

Kessler describes the teaching computer lab at the Entertainment Arts and Engineering building where students create video e-sport programs at the University of Utah. It is the first school in one of the Power 5 conferences to offer varsity e-sports.

We caught up with Kessler to ask him to tell us about his highly successful program—one that won over students and skeptics alike.

Computer Society: What is the Entertainment Arts and Engineering program at the University of Utah?

Kessler: EAE, founded in 2007, is essentially a games program here at the university. We have 11 faculty, 7 staff, 600 undergrads and 120 graduate students. At the undergraduate level, we offer a BS in games, a games emphasis on computer science, and a minor in games. At the graduate level, we have a masters of EAE—with tracks in game art, game engineering, game production, and technical art—and a dual MEAE/MBA degree. Our website has all the details.

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We are heavily into games production, teaching highly collaborative, project-based classes in all aspects of designing, creating, and research into the discipline of games.

How Computer Science Majors and Art Majors Learned to Collaborate

Computer Society: What were the challenges in getting this program started?

Kessler: In the beginning, I worked with some colleagues in the College of Fine Arts to create the beginnings of EAE. We were trying to solve the problem that, in games production, artists and engineers work very closely together. Our computer science students didn’t know anything about the art side and art students didn’t know about computing. So, we created emphases (like a track) on both sides, where the students took classes together (and were “forced’ to learn to work together) and build games. We made each side take classes in the other discipline to also learn what it is that the other side does. Eventually, this helped the students learn about how to work with the other side and become valuable employees in the game industry.

“The students loved it from day one….We had such a huge number of existing students that wanted to be in the program.”

~ Kessler on his top-ranked video game design program

Computer Society: What did it take to get the programs going?

Kessler: Getting the new tracks approved was relatively easy as it was just a tweak to the existing degrees in computer science and film and media arts. The two chairs were on board and we convinced the faculty that it was a good idea. This required no new funding except being able to create some new classes. Creating the master’s program was a much bigger challenge. We needed funding to hire more faculty and work with our industry colleagues to help teach classes, create computer labs, and so on. We did that in 2009, right during the great recession, so that was a huge challenge.

How Wait-and-See Faculty Came to Embrace a Master’s Program in Video Games

Computer Society: What was the reaction from students when you got the program up and running?

Kessler: The students loved it from day one. In fact, when we started, we decided to create a two-semester, large-team based, interdisciplinary senior capstone class. We expected that we’d need to create it in the fourth year when the new students became seniors. We had such a huge number of existing students that wanted to be in the program, that we created it in the second year!

Computer Society: What about the faculty?

Kessler: At the undergraduate level, the faculty thought that it was interesting, but no real commitment was made one way or the other. The graduate program was different. The faculty and administrators were taking a wait-and-see approach to see if our master’s program was going to be successful and self-sustaining. They gave us three years to see if we could do it. After two years, they said it is clearly working and helped us to get a base budget and start as a real organization.

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How Gaming Is Serious Education

Computer Society: How big will gaming technology get over the years?

Kessler: That’s really hard to say. Games are increasingly part of all of our lives, whether it is for entertainment or even some research work that EAE does in serious games—games that help people. We specialize in games in medicine. There are some excellent data about games at the Entertainment Software Association. Games are much larger than the film industry, and everyone knows about the film industry.

Computer Society: How many other universities have a program like yours?

Kessler: At the undergraduate level, there are hundreds of games programs, some as involved as ours and some just offering some classes. At the graduate level, there are maybe 50 to 75.

Host Seth Juarez of Level Up, a show devoted to game development, interviews Robert Kessler (center) and Roger Altizer (right) of the University of Utah at the Game Developers Conference (GDC 2015).



About Lori Cameron

Lori Cameron is Senior Writer for IEEE Computer Society publications and digital media platforms with over 20 years extensive technical writing experience. She is a part-time English professor and winner of two 2018 LA Press Club Awards. Contact her at l.cameron@computer.org. Follow her on LinkedIn