SALT LAKE CITY — Rachel Leiker loves video games.
The graphic designer said her parents didn't allow her to have a gaming console when she was growing up. But that didn't stop her from spending time at the home of her neighbor, Jenny, who had an original Nintendo Entertainment System.
"We would play for hours and hours," said Leiker, who also works as a entertainment arts and engineering program assistant at the University of Utah. "I've been playing them since I was 6."
This fall, she will be among the first students in a new master's degree program in video game design. Leiker said she intends to pursue a career in games research, developing interactive programs that help educate and train individuals in areas such as medicine and health care.
"We actually do make games that help people," she said. "You don't have to be a total game nerd to be in games."
The Utah Board of Regents on Friday approved the creation of a University of Utah master's program in entertainment arts and engineering, which operates as an interdisciplinary program between the school's fine arts and engineering colleges.
The video game program for graduate students, created three years ago as an experimental program, is the first of its kind in Utah and has already gained national acclaim.
Last month, the program was ranked second in the nation by The Princeton Preview. Its undergraduate counterpart, which began at the university in 2007, was ranked first in the nation.
While the program may sound like fun and games, Executive Director Bob Kessler said it's serious business that offers starting salaries between $70,000 and $100,000 and has seen high growth in recent years as handheld devices such as tablets and smartphones become more prolific.
"There are very good, high-paying jobs that are available," Kessler said. "The growth of the industry is definitely higher than most industries."
Students currently earn a master's degree in either computing or film, with an emphasis in game arts, game engineering or game production. With the creation of a dedicated master's degree for entertainment arts and engineering, faculty members say they'll be able to combine the existing rigor of game design with additional graduate education to help students begin a career in the video game industry.
Undergraduate students will continue to earn their degrees in either computing or film, Kessler said. That model is better for undergraduates, in that they are not limited to a particular field, he said, but graduate students benefit from the added focus of a stand-alone program.
"It certainly makes it a degree where it's very specific," Kessler said. "At the master's level, you need to specialize."
Students in the video game program take a combination of classroom and studio simulation courses, which culminate in a yearlong thesis project where groups of students work to create a publishable video game.
The program mirrors the way games are produced in the industry, Kessler said, as any one game is the resulting work of several artists, engineers and producers.
"All games are created as teams," he said. "Games are very complex to create, both from the artistic end of things to the software end of things."
Kessler said he was surprised at how quickly the master's degree was able to clear its several levels of approval, but he acknowledged that it's rare for a degree program to be second in the country after only three years of existence.
Moving forward, Kessler said, a stand-alone degree program will eventually lead to more faculty members, more classes, more flexibility in creating a curriculum and, of course, more games.
The first cohort of graduate students for the newly created entertainment arts and engineering program will begin classes this fall. Kessler said the department has so far received roughly 100 applications and will be able to accept between 40 and 45 students.
"As our rankings go up and as we get to be more well known, we seem to just be getting more and more applications," he said. "That gives us the power to build on that and to grow."