UCSC’s groundbreaking computer game program, top 5 nationally, charts ‘astonishing’ path

A scene from the game Squish, created by UCSC students and available for Nintendo Switch.

U.S. News and World Report ranked the UC Santa Cruz undergraduate game design program among the top five in the nation, tying with programs at MIT and Rochester Institute of Technology, according to its 2022-23 analysis. UCSC Computational Media professor Jim Whitehead told Lookout about the program’s history, how gaming studies have changed over time at UCSC and what some of his favorite games are.

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A Q&A with UC Santa Cruz professor Jim Whitehead

One program at UC Santa Cruz — which ranked in the top 35 among public universities in the U.S. this year — is in the top five among competitors.

Computer game design.

In its 2022-23 rankings announced this week, U.S. News and World Report put UCSC’s computer game design program in the No. 5 spot nationally, tied with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rochester Institute of Technology. The University of Southern California was No. 1.

The UCSC program has grown over time since starting with 90 incoming students in 2006, and now counts about 450 students. PlayStation, Nintendo, Apple, Google, Zynga, Activision, Riot Games and 2K Games are just a few from a list of companies UCSC computer game design students have worked for, according to Jim Whitehead, professor of computational media.

Whitehead helped develop the computer game design major, the first established in the University of California system, and says he believes the program is set apart by its high number of research-focused faculty who offer unique courses.

“I think we have a lot of strength in these areas that are very specialized and often only done at a graduate level, but we’re able to bring that down to the undergrads,” he said Wednesday, sitting in his office in the Baskin School of Engineering.

The undergraduate program is part of the Computational Media Department, one of seven departments within the Baskin School of Engineering, located on the northern part of the UCSC campus. Whitehead pointed out that the computational media department is not the only department involved in video game development, and games generally, at the university, with courses also offered through the games and playable media program.

Between 10 and 14 faculty members in the Computational Media Department and the Art and Design: Games & Playable Media Program are focused on games. The latter program has recently become part of UCSC’s Department of Performance, Play & Design.

Students both specialize and work collectively on projects. For example, in 2019, a group of students from both departments working on a senior project to create a video game, Squish — and they recently celebrated the game’s release for Nintendo Switch. Creating a game is a requirement for the computer game design major.

“It was a really remarkable team,” said Whitehead.

In the game, Squish users party so hard that the roof begins to fall down. The users have to navigate getting to safety by avoiding obstacles without getting squished.

It’s the first student project to make it to that level of commercial success, Whitehead said.

Once students have graduated from the game design program, he notes, many go off to either continue their studies in graduate programs such as UCSC’s or work in a long list of design studios.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Professor Jim Whitehead discusses projects in the UCSC undergraduate computer game design lab
Professor Jim Whitehead discusses projects in the undergraduate computer game design lab in the Baskin School of Engineering building at UCSC.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: How did the program get started?

Jim Whitehead: In the dot-com crash, around 2002, the number of incoming computer science students really went down a lot. The perception was there were no more jobs — and of course, those of us who looked at Silicon Valley knew it was going to be huge. But there was a lot of concern about this. I had also served on our admissions committee within the Academic Senate, and that made me aware of how students decided to come here. I realized that they just sort of chose campuses in a rank order within computer science. So I wondered, how do we get more students to come? How do we shorten this ranking? Then I also talked to some incoming freshmen in computer science, and I learned that about half of them were coming here out of a motivation to learn how to make computer games. We had a computer graphics class, and that was it. So we weren’t really feeding that desire in any way. All these things made me realize if we did something with computer games, I bet it would be popular. It seems really relevant to California, because so much of the industry is here.

We thought maybe there would be 50 students a year, after three years. And instead, the first year, we ended up with 90 incoming freshmen. And at that time, there were like 50 incoming computer science freshmen. So from the very first year, it was already bigger. That then played out for more or less the same levels for a few years.

Lookout: What’s it like looking back on the department after just over 15 years of its development and why do you think it’s important for students to gain these skills?

Whitehead: I guess I’ve been just kind of astonished at the size of it. Between our engineering program and the arts program, there’s 800 and some undergraduates at UC Santa Cruz who are studying games, and in some ways, that’s a lot of people, that’s honestly astonishing to me. So it’s maybe the greatest concentration of students in North America studying games.

This understanding of how to craft interactive experience and make that engaging — so often, someone coming just straight through a computer science program just doesn’t really know how to make an engaging experience. It’s almost like conventional wisdom that you don’t let the programmer create your user interface — make sure you have a designer or somebody who has this interaction design perspective. So I think that is a core competency of the students who come out. They do understand how to create these interactive experiences, and are just kind of much more attuned to the idea that there is a human who’s interacting with my software, and that person will react to it and respond to it in certain ways.

Lookout: What’s one of your favorite games?

Whitehead: I’ve had different ones over time. I think an all-time favorite is Civilization, which is strategy but it also has history. Also, I think a lot of computer games are about power and giving you a sense of power. What can be more powerful than being in charge of a civilization and charting a civilization through time? I also find that game super compelling because it’s always giving you prompts — what should this piece do or what should this town make? It’s always giving you these interesting decisions to make. Before that game, I never had a computer experience that was so engrossing that I would start playing the game, and then, hours later, I would look up and be like, “Oh, maybe I should eat now.” So I realized that like any game that could provide such a powerful experience, there was something there. There’s very few things that humans make that are so engrossing and deliver such powerful experiences. So that, for me, has always been one of my lodestones and the importance of this, and why it’s worth studying.