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UCSC Launches The Country's First M.S. Program In Serious Games

UCSC Games & Playable Media and Serious Games MS Programs

As anticipated in my prior post, the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz is launching the first professional master’s degree program in Serious Games offered in the United States, with an initial cohort of students starting in fall 2019. Applications for the M.S. in Serious Games were accepted until January 24, 2019.

Based at UCSC's Silicon Valley Campus in Santa Clara, the Serious Games program builds on existing expertise at UC Santa Cruz in assistive technologies, games and playable media, digital art and new media, psychology, and other related disciplines. The campus's professional degree programs are designed to replicate and accelerate the process of learning from experience.

Image credit: UCSC's Silicon Valley Campus in Santa Clara
The Silicon Valley Campus is home to the UCSC M.S. in Serious Games

“Our professional programs in games and playable media and Serious Games are project-oriented and emulations of professional environments,” said Michael John, a teaching professor of computational media who has more than 25 years of industry experience with both Serious and Entertainment Games. “Each quarter you might make three or four games, and they won’t all be good; actually most of them won’t be good, but the process of building lots of little interactive toys and games is how you learn, and that turns out to be a key skill in the workplace.”

The new program will train students over five academic quarters in six key areas: game design, game technology, eliciting and integrating subject matter knowledge, designing and conducting efficacy measures, effective teamwork, and career planning. It will culminate in a capstone project. The program's location in the heart of Silicon Valley and the close relationships of faculty with industry are expected to create ample opportunities for students.

There are opportunities to study Serious Games at other universities, but none offer the breadth and focus of the new program at UC Santa Cruz,” said Noah Wardrip-Fruin, professor of computational media. “The professional degree in Serious Games will give students an entry into a rapidly growing industry,” he added. 

Image credit: UCSC Baskin Engineering Website
Jim Egen dons a virtual reality helmet and paddles to test ASSIST lab's stroke rehabilitation game.

UC Santa Cruz already offers two of the most highly rated game degree programs in the country: a B.S. in computer game design and M.S. in games and playable media, both in the top 20 of Princeton Review’s Top Game Design Schools.

Much of the credit for the early emphasis on games at UC Santa Cruz goes to Jim Whitehead, professor and chair of computational media. In 2004, he began developing a program for computer science students who wanted experience with game development. When the campus began offering a B.S. in computer game design in 2006, it was the first program of its kind in the UC system and one of the few in the country.

During the past decade, UCSC alumni have helped create the latest generation of games. Whitehead said he foresees the same thing happening with Serious Games. Some students currently enrolled in the games and playable media program are already planning to switch to Serious Games. “There’s a lot of overlap between Serious Games and more entertainment platforms,” he said. “They work with the same programming languages, but there are definitely divergence points.”

Those divergence points provide the rationale for having two separate programs. “If you’re doing a Serious Game, there’s some sort of outcome expected, and it’s really important to measure whether you’re getting there or not. So there’s an important assessment component,” Whitehead said.

Designing games with assessment built in seems like a subtle distinction but often requires an entirely different design philosophy. Another reason for separate programs, according to Whitehead, is that the students interested in them are quite different.

Edward Melcer, assistant professor of computational media, teaches a required course on the fundamentals of Serious Games. “So many people see the potential of games to do something important, but shy away,” Melcer said. “People think they have to have all this technical knowledge or be a hardcore gamer to do Serious Games, but we don’t require that. We want people with passion, people who want to do something for their audience.”

More information about the M.S. in Serious Games at UC Santa Cruz is available online at