We want kids to get educated; kids want to play video games. EAE, the Entertainment Arts & Engineering program at University of Utah, uses one to accomplish the other. 

EAE takes computer science beyond entertainment. Photo by Adam Finkle.

Bob Kessler, a professor in the University of Utah School of Computing, had a problem to solve after the 2000 dot-com implosion. He had a department full of computer engineers who needed jobs.

“As engineers do, I did some research,” Kessler says. He asked video game industry leaders what they wanted in programmers. They told him they needed engineers who could work with artists.

“Video game development is an interdisciplinary science in which you have computer engineers and artists working together all the time,” Kessler says. “But engineers don’t understand how artists work—what their thought processes are.”

That old left brain, right brain thing.

Kessler reached across the great divide to the U’s Fine Arts Department. An idea emerged: Give engineers some art education and introduce artists to  programming. Then throw them together on real-world projects.

“We hijacked their electives.” Kessler says. “Our students take all their classes as a computer scientist, but also a set of classes with artists.” 

The result was the U’s wildly successful Entertainment and Arts Engineering Program, ranked No. 1 in the nation by the Princeton Review. “For four years you have artists and engineers working together,” says Kessler, EAE’s executive director. “Engineers are learning how to talk to people who are not like them. Having the skills to talk to non-engineering or non-nerds is so important.”

EAE started producing students with the skills the computer game industry pays well for. The students not only had proven they could work effectively with artists in large groups, but they had a senior project to show for it: a video game.

“The game companies loved this,” Kessler says. “They’re talking to people who can go all the way through the publishing process.”

Then something surprising started happening. EAE began researching the use of games for purposes other than pure entertainment. One result is a therapy for children with cancer. “We created a game for these kids that has two elements to it, physical activity and patient empowerment—if you think you can get better, you will get better.”

In the Patient Empowerment Game, a superhero is gravely ill and finds himself battling a robot crab–representing cancer. The superhero gradually gets stronger and the crab weakens. “The patient relates to that and they, in essence, are defeating their disease.”

EAE students are putting their game programming skills to other challenges, including a game that encourages diabetes patients to check their glucose levels, one that gets spinal-injury patients exercising and a virtual card game that uses autistic children’s uncanny symbol recognition skills to improve their social skills. 

EAE is even working with a local company to increase the connectivity between the left and right sides of the brain. “It could help athletes perform better and help ADD patients,” Kessler says.

If  patient improvement can be measured, video games could be prescribed as bonafide medical therapies. “And insurance companies would pay for it,” Kessler says. “It opens up a fascinating arena.”

Back>>>Read about other local inventions.

Back>>>Read other stories in our Jan/Feb 2014 issue.