ETSU's digital media program is more than just playing games

Matthew Lane • Updated Jan 31, 2017 at 12:25 PM

JOHNSON CITY — Students in ETSU's digital media program are not just sitting around the classroom playing video games all day long.

Chances are they're in a dark room, filled with the latest computers, 22-inch monitors and some of the best software available, working alone or in teams on animation, game design and visual effects skills.

Of course, these are just some of the things taking place in ETSU's Digital Media Center.

Since I've been a video game aficionado almost from birth, I've always been interested in learning more about the video game program at my alma mater. I had some preconceptions about the program, but after spending an afternoon with Todd Emma, an associate professor in ETSU's digital media department, I've learned the program is much more than just mashing buttons and swiping screens.

“A few years back, the digital media department wanted to expand its courses into a higher level of visibility in the curriculum. When I arrived, we had a concentration that did a lot of scripting, 2-D and interactive web content,” Emma said. “That was the base we used and expanded on. I've had a lot of help from a lot of people to implement a modern, 3-D game content program.”

ETSU's Digital Media Center is located adjacent to the Millennium Centre across from the minidome. A quick tour of the facility showed me at least five classrooms and labs full of computers, a projector to display a monitor on the wall so all could see, and a type of “armory” where all of the high-tech gadgets are kept.


Emma's students have access to a decent sized 3-D printer, stop-motion equipment, a green screen and VR equipment. On the day of my visit, one team of students showed off their current project — a VR game where the player explored a creepy, haunted mansion.

What actually takes place in the Digital Media Center (DMC) is not programming, Emma explained. That's across campus in the computer science department and is a completely different learning curve. Over there, students learn good coding skills.

In the DMC, the program consists of four different concentrations: digital animation, digital visualization, game design and visual effects. In short, where pictures and code come together to create fun things, Emma said.

“Our students who major in digital media and have a concentration in gaming focus on something called scripting, 3-D modeling and the Unreal game engine from Epic. It's the basis for many titles,” Emma said. “They primarily focus on outputting (games) to mobile and PC.”

Students learn a little bit of everything during their time in the DMC, including scripting, music and animation. It's done this way because when you arrive in the program wanting to design video games, your interests may change over time and you could end up specializing in something else.

“Now we focus our new students to try everything to make sure they pick the right thing,” said Greg Marlow, a graduate of the program and lecturer at the DMC. “They may want to get into video games, but once they get into the program they may like video production better or visualization. Playing games doesn't mean making games is what's right for you.”

A degree from the digital media program offers a wide variety of job opportunities for students, everything from the challenging transition to a AA or AAA company (Microsoft or Epic Games), to staying local and working on interactive content, small mobile applications or website work. Students have gone to work for a cell phone company creating interactive tutorials, another to Atlanta to work on VR games.

“You could never play a video game and be enormously successful,” Emma notes.

Marlow, who specializes in animation, worked at Firaxis Games for five years after graduating from ETSU, working on such well-known and popular games like Civilization 5 and 6 and the new X-COM title. He's been back in Johnson City for four years, though he still does the occasional freelance work for Firaxis.

“It's an interesting industry with a lot of long hours that come in sprints. You have a large project and everybody starts ramping up with 12 hour days. Then there's some pretty big breaks and free time for research and development,” Marlow said. “The games I worked on are not the type I play, though I play them now, and it's fun to go back and see how they worked out.”

The NPD Group, a New York-based market research company, estimates consumers spent $30.4 billion on games and accessories in 2016, up $200 million from the previous year. The field is progressing at such a high rate of speed, the software used by students today will be replaced with new versions in about nine months.

Emma said the biggest misconception about the digital media program at ETSU is that students spend all day playing video games.

“We don't. We do play them on occasion,” Emma said. “This is an incredibly intense, fast changing field and is a blend of art and computer science. It's just a wonderful field to be in.”

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