The Interactive Entertainment Program
at the USC School of Cinematic Arts
The project-based curriculum at the USC School of Cinematic Arts
offers students an education in design fundamentals, production
skills, and leadership in a collaborative, creative environment. The
goal of the program is to produce students who have the technical,
creative, and critical skills to bring to life the next generation of
The “gateway” class for matriculating students is Introduction to
Interactive Entertainment, which exposes students to foundational
works in game design and gives them critical vocabulary and
historical perspective. Additionally, students take introductory
cinema courses covering technique, aesthetics, criticism, and social
implications of cinema.
The program’s beginning game-design course, Game Design
Workshop, introduces students to core concepts such as the analysis
of game mechanics, defining player-experience goals, brainstorming
and ideation, paper prototyping, playtesting, and the iterative design
process. Game Design Workshop treats game design not as technical
practice, but as a participatory art form and provokes students’
imaginations with questions about the nature of games, the process
of design, and the aesthetics of play.
The beginning game design course is accompanied by an
introductory technology class, Programming for Interactivity. This
class takes students from various levels of expertise through an
exploration of the basics of programming for games. Students are
introduced to object-oriented computer programming and complete
several small 2D game prototypes by the end of the semester. Like the
complementary design class, Programming for Interactivity teaches
technology implementation in support of the player experience.
Intermediate and advanced project classes follow this same
structure, bringing design and technology closer together in service
of the overall experience. In joint projects at the intermediate level and
larger teams at the advanced level, students learn to form successful
collaborations, to become articulate and skillful team members, and
to earn the right to lead others by gaining the respect of their fellow
In addition to these core project classes, students round out their
game education by taking elective courses in visual arts, interface
design, programming, audio, writing, business and management,
experimental hardware, mobile technologies, motion capture, and
cultural game studies.
It has become clear to us as we have developed and expanded
this program that the future growth of the game industry lies in the
expansion of the expressive palette of games. Academic institutions
can play a part in this evolution of the medium by understanding that
the purpose of an education in games is not to train people to fill the
ranks of the game industry—though this may be one effect, as it has
been with film studies, for example. The purpose of an education in
games is to explore the nature of the medium, to learn by practice
and by exposure what its potential might be, and to help students to
articulate their own unique ideas in this powerful aesthetic form.
Intermediate students test their game prototypes in the state-of-the-art testing lab at USC. Class projects at all levels of instruction
go through multiple playtests over the course of development.
As a young designer, I felt threatened by this.
Who was this expert? Did he have the authority
to change my game? It was with some trepidation that I first met with Kevin Keeker from the
Microsoft user research group. Kevin showed up
with a dog-eared copy of the spec, a list of questions, and a heuristic evaluation. He had clearly
done his homework. The games were in a very
early state, and I was hesitant to put them in front
of users yet. Like most designers, I felt that if I
could just get all of my ideas implemented, the
tests would “go better.” Kevin assured me that it
was actually better to test early and identify any
issues while there was still time to make changes
to gameplay. So he created a test plan, and I took
the first set of prototypes out to Seattle.
What we found imploded my view of the design
process. Things which were completely self-evident to me were lost on the new players. Interface
design, clarity of rules, game balance, overall
premise—I came back with notes on all of this
and more. On the way to the airport, I realized
that I wanted to do another set of tests as soon
as possible—just as soon as we could implement
changes based on this initial feedback. I started
thinking about how I might work more tests into
the design schedule. What if we started earlier?
What if we started with paper models of the
gameplay and interface? I had become an addict.
I realized that user tests were the way to game-