It has no dorms, no sports teams, no dog-eared copies of Moby-Dick. It doesn't even have a campus - occupying instead part of a renovated warehouse. But it does have students, and it is a school. In fact, it is the first (and only) four-year, fully accredited college in the United States to grant a bachelor of science degree in "real time interactive simulation."
Welcome to Video Game University.
The DigiPen Institute of Technology, based in Redmond, Washington, opened its doors last January. The students in the inaugural class have heard the inevitable jokes about sitting around all day and playing with their joysticks. But they're not laughing; they're too busy with assignments. The curriculum involves an immersion in math, physics, and computer science; in the artistry of gaming; and, needless to say, in games - lots and lots of games. "If you say to students, 'let's study algorithms,' they run away," explains Claude Comair, 40, the institute's founder and president. "But if you give them the opportunity to make games, they do more than you ask them to."
Comair is typical of the game-loving overachievers who flock to his school. Born in Lebanon, he is fluent in Lebanese, Arabic, French, Japanese, and English. In 1988, he started an animation company called DigiPen Corp., based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Almost from the beginning, Comair's company struggled with the talent shortage that now grips the whole industry.
So he decided to start a school. It began, in Vancouver in 1989, as a single class open to students at nearby colleges. In 1994, working with Nintendo, Comair established a two-year program to grant diplomas - which are the equivalent of an associate degree. Finally, again with the cooperation of Nintendo, Comair created a school in Redmond that grants four-year degrees. Nintendo provides technical support, equipment, and space on its corporate campus. It gets plenty of goodwill from the students - but no special rights to their services.
Admissions are becoming highly competitive. Last year, 20,000 prospective students requested applications to the Vancouver school. More than 800 applied, but the program accepted only 60. DigiPen's registrar, Jason Chu, 32, says that most prospective applicants change their minds as soon as they receive the catalog, which makes no bones about the rigorous curriculum.
What kinds of students do make the grade? Not surprisingly, they are overwhelmingly male, and they see video games as a way of life. But they're not classic geeks. Indeed, most DigiPen students view themselves as artists and iconoclasts.
Devon Jorlett, 22, used his mother's Apple IIe to write a text-based role-playing game in BASIC at age 8. Jorlett also writes romantic poetry and hopes to earn a doctorate in philosophy. Randy Culley, 21, is a snowboarder and skateboarder as well as a gamer. "Gaming is an avenue for expressing yourself," he says. "All of us are on the rebellious side. We don't want to wear a tie to work after we graduate."
DigiPen students are also incredibly dedicated. They'd better be. "We do not compensate effort," says Comair, sounding more like Professor Kingsfield in "The Paper Chase" than like Super Mario. "We compensate results."
Life at DigiPen is demanding, but it's not lonely. Students sink or swim together, because all of their work is teamwork. "In the real world," says Chu, "you never find a game produced by just one person. Teamwork is something you have to learn."
And teams work as they please. Culley and his teammates divide assignments not according to what each person finds easiest to do but according to what comes hardest. "We're trying to grab the school by the throat and take everything we can from it," Culley explains.
Which is really the point. The ultimate goal is to work so hard that you make playing the game look easy - to achieve the illusion of effortlessness that marks all great art. "When you look at a ballerina dancing," says Comair, "you think she's a butterfly. Look carefully, though, and you can see the sweat."
A version of this article appeared in the August 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.