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New academy at Gulf High prepares students for careers in gaming industry

Gulf High School Academy of Gaming, Simulation and Design students Chris Murphy, right, and Christian Young work on a project. Students use the latest technologies for 3-D and animation, as well as design and development.
Gulf High School Academy of Gaming, Simulation and Design students Chris Murphy, right, and Christian Young work on a project. Students use the latest technologies for 3-D and animation, as well as design and development.
Published Jan. 28, 2016

NEW PORT RICHEY

In a classroom filled with 25 high school students and 30 Dell desktop computers, Chris Murphy was immersed in an assignment. His mission: create an environment for a role-playing video game using tutorial software.

The three-room house depicted on the computer screen started with a bare-bones template. With clicks of a computer mouse, Murphy could drag and drop animated walls, doors and furniture into the house and create pathways and trigger tasks for a player to complete. Move a character through a door to find a hidden treasure chest, for instance, and a player might activate a pop-up message, a key to a door or a weapon to battle a nemesis.

There would be a soundtrack to add — music and effects to accompany a dangerous encounter, an accomplished mission or to alert a player, with hastened tempo, that time was running out.

Murphy, one of 103 students in the Academy of Gaming, Simulation and Design at Gulf High School, would have to complete 177 steps to earn a grade.

It wasn't all that difficult to navigate the tasks.

At age 16, Murphy is no stranger to technology. For his generation, playing video and computer games and chatting online have been a part of family bonding time and a natural progression in socialization. He cut his teeth on a PlayStation 1. He honed his reflexes with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and a multiplayer quiz game called Buzz! that he played with his parents.

"I've been playing games like this pretty much my whole life — basically ever since I could hold a controller," Murphy said as he pondered where to place a window.

Many outgrow the games of childhood, but not so much with the gaming genre. The average age of today's player is 35, according to the Entertainment Software Association. From Minecraft to Super Smash Bros. to Candy Crush, more than 150 million Americans of all ages are playing, whether it be on a game console, computer or wireless device.

For the avid gamer, there's an insatiable hunger for more challenges, more levels, more games. With that comes employment opportunities.

According to Video Games in the 21st Century: The 2014 Report, the U.S. video game industry presently employs more than 42,000 people in 36 states. In 2012, the average annual compensation for individual employees was $94,747. Total U.S. employment, both direct and indirect, that depends on the video game industry exceeds 146,000.

The Gulf High's Academy of Gaming, Simulation and Design, now in its second year, offers students a gateway.

It is the first of its kind in Pasco County and one of many cropping up in Florida and across the country, said Terry Aunchman, director of career and technical education for Pasco County schools. He helped design the academy after visiting Full Sail University in Winter Park and a similar high school program in Hills­borough County.

"We thought is was a great way to tie in information technology as well as programming while designing playable games," Aunchman said. "It's more engaging when you're learning a computer language and creating this game."

Because of where she lives, Amirah Linzy, 15, was slated to go to River Ridge High School but opted into the Gulf High gaming program through school choice. The appeal, she said, was that the academy allows her to test future options as a game designer "laying out the story line" while still exploring her interest in psychology.

"I like it a lot. You can do your work quietly," said Linzy, who is one of two female students in her class. "It's relaxed, but no one's sitting around doing nothing. Everyone's working in their own environment."

Students who finish the program leave with a certificate of completion, a high school diploma and an online portfolio that could help secure entry-level employment or acceptance into a college program.

"The curriculum has a lot of building blocks," said Gulf High gaming teacher Neil Boyle.

First-year students study the history of video games and learn the business aspects of the industry and the basics of game design. The second-year curriculum includes learning all aspects of game creation. There's also instruction in the newly installed motion capture room — a technique used in gaming development and the film industry. Future third- and fourth-year students will create games using game engines and will learn some coding and graphics. They also have to take an Advanced Placement computer science class where they learn Java programming in their senior year.

"The intriguing aspect of this class is creating the games, especially the preproduction aspects like character design and story paths," said Jordan Fryer, 16.

While learning how to create games is the academy's focus, students also are encouraged to take upper-level core classes.

"The main thing is creativity, but students also have to have a (solid) math and science background because there is a lot of physics involved," Boyd said. "For some students, this class keeps them interested in school. They realize there's a goal. Maybe English didn't make sense, but now it does because they're writing (story lines) in here. They know why they have to be in school."

That could fuel incentive for students to further their education.

The Entertainment Software Association lists more than 400 U.S. colleges and universities offering video game-related degrees or certificates, including a couple of prestigious programs in Florida. The University of Central Florida in Orlando was ranked No. 2 in the Princeton Review's "Top 25 Graduate Schools to Study Gaming Design for 2015," with Full Sail University in Winter Park coming in at No. 18. Other Florida schools offering programs in game design or related studies include the University of Florida, the University of Miami, Keiser University, Gulf Coast State College, Hillsborough Community College, ITT Tech and St. Petersburg College.

Graduates might land jobs in the real world as programmers, writers, designers, art and animation specialists, audio specialists, marketers and software developers.

To that end, second-year students recently visited Artix Entertainment in Lutz, owned by Adam Bohn, 39, the creator of online video games such as the popular AdventureQuest series.

"The students of the Simulation and Gaming Academy are the future of our industry," Bohn wrote in an email to the Times. "It is a real pleasure getting the chance to show future game developers how we make video games. We hope that it will inspire them to pursue their creative goals and dreams."

The field trip was a hit for students.

"It's not like a job to them," Leo Fernandez, 17, said. "The lesson that resonated with me was that you should work hard after school. That you should put more into it than just what you have to do in class. That you should work harder than your peers."

"There were writers, artists, motion artists, people who designed the levels," said Matthew Miranda, 16. "It seemed like everyone enjoyed their job — like they were living their dream."

Contact Michele Miller at mmiller@tampabay,com. Follow @MicheleMiller52.