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North Hills Monthly

What is an Entertainment Technology Degree, and How Does it Prepare Students for Real-world Jobs?

Dec 30, 2014 12:07PM ● By Jack Etzel
What happens when you mix intellect with fun and games? You get an explosion of new processes, tools, visions for storytelling, entertainment and ‘edutainment’ that migrate all over the world. Innovative use technology is the focus of the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University, which was cofounded in 1999 by drama professor Don Marinelli and computer science professor Randy Pausch. Its director, Dr. Drew Davidson, talked to us about the latest advancements at ETC. 

North Hills Monthly Magazine (NHMM): Professor Davidson, how would you explain the Entertainment Technology Center to someone who is not familiar with what you do?
Drew Davidson: ETC provides a two-year professional master’s degree that is somewhat comparable to an MBA (master’s in Business Administration), but while an MBA focuses on business and management, we focus on design and development. We are co-accredited by the College of Fine Arts and the School of Computer Science. We are involved much more in the creative industries. People are coming here to work on video games, animation, technical arts and films, or at location-based entertainment venues like Disney or Universal. To be brief, we’re creating and making stuff.

NHMM: It sounds like fun and games, but isn’t it also serious and complicated?
Davidson: It’s both. We build an inner-disciplinary student body by choosing about 40 percent of our students from technical backgrounds, 40 percent from artistic backgrounds and the other 20 percent from anywhere. We put them in teams of three or more and they have to create and make things together. They learn how to work together and collaborate and innovate to make the next great thing. We’re very interested in that breadth of technology, but also how it can be applied in other fields. For example, how can you use technology to help with learning in education, or in health or medical fields, in civic engagement, or in entertainment? Other interactive games might focus on social or global issues. I’ve heard this described as making creative renaissance teams.

NHMM: So your students are more than just video game designers.
Davidson: We occasionally still get pigeon-holed that way. By the way, we also create board games and other types of games. We are unique in that we award an MET, (a master’s in Entertainment Technology), and from the beginning there was strong support from Carnegie Mellon University. A few say that this was a made-up degree, but once upon a time, so was computer science.

NHMM: Why would a student interested in this field choose your specific program?
Davidson: Our real strength is our breadth. We do know that we’re the best at games at CMU, but we don’t just do games. We’re dealing with 21st-century skills. Some critics may call them ‘soft skills,’ but they can be very hard to teach and learn. You must develop the ability to know how to be clear among people from different backgrounds and with widely diverse skills, and how to deal with inner-personal relationships, different agendas, and do all of this and more while communicating and collaborating with each other. You have to be able to get through the inevitable conflicts you’re going to experience, as well as work with clients.

NHMM: There’s a video software company called Zulama that uses games to re-engage students in local schools that was inspired by ETC. Is that a spin-off, start-up or what?
Davidson: No, Zulama is run by Nikki Navta and that’s not a spin-off but more of a collaboration. When she saw what was being done at ETC, she wanted to try a similar course at the high school level. Some of our faculty helped her company with the curriculum. We do have start-ups and spin-offs, and it’s far too long a list to mention, but both students and I think it’s kind of cool and important how the university handles these. Carnegie Mellon allows our students to own the intellectual property that results from what they’ve created 100 percent. Some of our students have made their own projects, and some of those projects have enough legs that make it worthwhile to go forward. They can take the work that they’ve made here and try to form a company out of it, whether it’s a game, a robot or whatever. We have start-ups that cross state lines and national boundaries.

NHMM: Can you give me an example?
Davidson: Among the newer successes is one called Schell Games that is now at Station Square. Another video game that was born on campus in 2005 is a Middle East government simulation game called PeaceMaker that you can still buy and play. And not only are our start-ups and spin-offs successful, but also our individual alumni are doing well in the industry and can be found all over the world employed as designers, artists, programmers and producers at top entertainment firms.

NHMM: Obviously, these are very special students. Do they find CMU or does the school find them?
Davidson: A little bit of both. Because of the popularity of the book, The Last Lecture, written by the late Randy Pausch, we probably get more applications from computer science students than from any other field. Add to that the great international reputation that Carnegie Mellon enjoys, and we end up with a good mixture. We currently have students from 27 different countries. We need that mix, so we visit a lot of schools to let as many quality art and technical students know about the possibilities they’ll discover here.

NHMM: I get the feeling that your students think that they can create a better world. Do they really think that big?
Davidson: I seriously hope so. It’s a challenge we put to them. We see it a lot in our student body. They don’t just want a job; they want to make a difference. That’s very rewarding.  

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