University of Florida provides real career paths around games

UF's Digital Worlds Institute and other Florida schools are leveraging new technology and intense instruction to help students land in dream jobs, including esports.
By: | January 3, 2020
Staff photos/Chris Burt

“Video games are a waste of time for men with nothing else to do. Real brains don’t do that. On occasion? Sure. As relaxation? Great. But not full time — And a lot of people are doing that. And while they’re doing that, I’ll go ahead and write another novel.” – Ray Bradbury (2001)

Ray Bradbury’s vision of the future was penned in epic works such as “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Martian Chronicles.” His surrealist and fantasy novels later became the inspiration for those who developed the very games he panned. But Bradbury, a man with an extraordinary imagination and otherworldliness who even had video games named after his books, likely didn’t see this coming:

That video games would provide a connection for men … and women … to learn and grow, not just space out.

Nearly two decades since his proclamation, acceptance of video games as a smart exercise vehicle is gaining steam. Educators at both the secondary and collegiate level are finding there are merits in allowing students to spend time with a mouse in their hands and even competing with peers via esports.

Game play has passed the arcade stage and become serious business. Just ask those recent grads who have parlayed video gaming into careers as broadcasters, analysts, game designers, marketers, content creators and animators. Or those who have taken a more Bradbury-scorned approach, practicing their days away before turning pro and scoring big tournament payouts or lucrative esports contracts.

Stories are being written about the future, just not the way Bradbury perhaps envisioned it.

Photo courtesy of Digital Worlds Institute

“It’s definitely become an area of growth that I could have never seen happening in a million years,” says Nick Heitzman, a former game artist who is now Lecturer at the University of Florida’s cutting-edge Digital Worlds Institute. “When I was young, it was like, video games? You’re never going to make a penny. What are you doing? You fool! But it’s turned out to be pretty awesome, and it just keeps getting better every year.”

Schools across the country are capitalizing on this phenomenon. Some are doing it to reach more students. Some are following a specific, curriculum-based blueprint. Some are simply allowing kids to play. Whatever the cause, the effect has been quite astonishing as talent-rich, game-driven students land positions at high-tech companies.

“We have graduates who are at Microsoft, Adobe, the large companies like that,” says Marko Suvajdzic, Ph.D., Associate Director and Professor at UF’s Digital Worlds Institute. “I was just talking to one of our grads who got a job at Oracle. There are also those who are more interested in going to entrepreneurial or startup companies, or even making their own startups. Given the current trends in the industry, there’s no lack of jobs right now. They’re well-qualified, and they have choices where they want to go.”

The success stories have been buoyed by opportunities being given to them by forward-thinking instructors, particularly at the college level. Leaders such as Heitzman and Suvajdzic are creatively leveraging the latest technology and ideas to help students find their calling.

Convergence 2020, UF’s annual event taking place April 23-25 in its Innovate: The Hub (which features more than 50 startup companies), is a student showcase featuring work in games, animation, and production. (Photo courtesy of Digital Worlds Institute)

In November, we visited several higher education institutions in Florida to see how they are fostering a wave of learning and collaboration around video games and the technology that surrounds them – from game design courses on campus to virtual reality project implementation at area hospitals. We spoke to top educators at five different schools – UF, the University of Central Florida, Ringling School of Art and Design, the DAVE School at Universal Studios and Full Sail University. They all echoed the same sentiment – these games have a future, and the opportunities for students are boundless. Over the next few weeks, we will be bringing you their insight, their schools’ unique programs and their real-world applications.

This week, we feature the University of Florida, a school located in the remote city of Gainesville that is best known for its national championship football teams, its stadium dubbed “The Swamp” and its most famous alum, Tim Tebow. Though esports does have a fairly large presence on campus and boasts a pro gamer in Chris Cantrell, it’s the work behind the scenes, at Digital Worlds Institute in particular, that is helping put students in position for careers around the games.

The Digital World at Florida

The University of Florida is more than stellar athletic programs. It is one of the top national public universities in the country, ranking No. 7 in U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges. An incoming freshman must have a minimum GPA of 4.3-4.6 and an SAT score of 1330-1460 (ACT 29-33) to be considered for admission. According to the Milken Institute, Florida outpaces schools such as Stanford and MIT, ranking third in the nation in technology transfer, or taking lab work and applying it into the real world.

One of the real bonuses for students who attend UF is the personalized teaching. Half of the university’s undergraduate classes feature 20 or less students thanks to a 2017 initiative that saw the school hire nearly 500 more faculty members.

Tucked away in Norman Hall, an 87-year-old gothic-style brick building that at one time housed the original basketball gym (the hardwood floors still exist), is the Digital World Institute. Part of the College of The Arts, it serves to “inspire a culture of curiosity and imagination” by helping train students as artists and scholars who focus on creative activity and innovation.

“Our goal and mission and objective is blending arts and sciences,” says Justin Marlin, Assistant Director of Student Services and Administration at Digital Worlds, which offers both bachelor’s and masters’ degrees in digital arts and sciences. “It’s not just an art degree. It’s not just a computer science degree or a communications degree. We are forcing students to think of all these things all at the same time. That is an emerging field and understanding … someone who can think design-oriented, but also tech-oriented, as well. Games sit within that perfectly.”

Photo courtesy of Digital Worlds Institute

The gamer, the artist, the teacher

One of its elite instructors is Heitzman, a former 3D video game artist at Sega, Sony Online Entertainment, Microsoft, Gas Powered Games and Cavedog Entertainment among others. Before coming to UF, he was an art faculty leader at the world-renowned Guildhall at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

He offers the unique perspective of being on the front lines of the video game boom – helping create iconic games Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA at Sega – before watching the industry collapse.

University of Florida instructor Nick Heitzman.

“I was like what am I gonna do now? I’ve been making games for the last four years,” he says. “There’s nothing here. Then somehow while I was gone, there was suddenly Nintendo and Microsoft and all the stuff that wasn’t there before.”

As the gaming renaissance was unfolding, he pivoted from “the grind of building games” to teaching. He landed at Guildhall, then UF and his outlook changed.

Now, he says, “This is really fun!”

His eyes light up when he talks about UF’s program, which includes three classes that are right up his alley: Games … that teach everything from mobile to top-down to multiplayer to a collaborative with artificial intelligence and computer science. Among the “cool” highlights Heitzman shared:

  • The cat simulator his students developed, where “a little cat was going around and eating, drinking, going to the bathroom and playing. It started out with just a ball rolling and then it was like, whoa, this is really cool … to see students put that together.”
  • And the senior project, where “they get to create something, an amazing artifact of some kind.”
  • Or a “fully-functioning soccer simulator” and the “hover racer, with a full-on detailed texture track.”

Getting that hands-on training and cross-section of knowledge – from art to communication to engineering and science – students at Digital Worlds not only receive a breadth of information from insiders, they also have time to create and apply their work inside and outside the campus.

“We’re talking about the game curriculum, but our students are unique in that they’re also in animation classes; they’re also in production classes,” says Marlin. “So, when they do go out and they land that first job, they have a long list of skills that they can apply or go in different veins. I think that uniquely positions them over someone who maybe is only doing animation or is only doing production or only doing games. I think it gives them more of a ceiling.

“I think it also helps because the industry is changing every year – what software they’re using, or how software is updating every six months or so. What it’s really teaching them is problem-solving … being able to adapt with the changing technology. Our focus here is making sure that they can be successful.”

Photo courtesy of Digital Worlds Institute

Finding a future at Florida

Ultimately, the Digital Worlds program is preparing students for the future by allowing them to pursue something they love. It’s something many educators and parents are still gun-shy about embracing.

“When I was young, I was into Dungeons & Dragons and going to the arcade and my parents hated that,” Heitzman says. “Right now, we’ve got a generation where they say, you’re playing too much or there are too many games, or virtual friends aren’t real friends. But as that generation becomes the group that’s empowered, they say, no we like that. We want more of that.”

They are getting it at UF. Students learn in a variety of world-class spaces on campus, including:

  • a polymodal immersive theater with real-time classroom teaching
  • a virtual production system with motion capture technology
  • digital media suites for production and digital video editing
  • a reality lab for 3D animation and modeling
  • and the GYM, which has been transformed into a state-of-the-art collaborative workspace for game design.

They’re studying those games, the ones the author Bradbury said were simply a waste of time, and making them their livelihood. UF grads have landed jobs as UI/UX designers, software developers, motion graphics artists and animators, and they are designing apps for tech companies.

They’re also learning from some of the best. Aside from Heitzman, Digital Worlds features a number of standout instructors:

University of Florida instructor Marko Suvajdzic

Suvajdzic founded the Computer Arts and Design department at the Academy of Art in Belgrade, Serbia, before coming to UF. He also worked on top-selling video games title Dogz and Catz and Petz and co-founded startup companies IQ Studios and Organic to Digital (O2D).

Angelos Barmpoutis was UF’s College of the Arts Teacher of the Year in 2018 is an expert in interdisciplinary applications of computer science and engineering. He earned the Merit Award from the IEEE International Conference on Connected Vehicles (2016) and was finalist for the Rome Prize for Historic Preservation and Conservation (2018). He has coauthored more than 90 journal publications, book chapters, and conference presentations.

Kyle Bohunicky has successfully leveraged live streaming platforms such as Twitch and augmented reality and virtual reality to support engagement with culture, art, and research. He also explores digital games as engines and platforms for creating art through play.

Photo courtesy of Digital Worlds Institute

Many universities and schools are seeing the value of this technology, by not only housing spaces for students on campus but also fielding experts who can impart their knowledge to forward-thinking students. The end result is a future … that includes a career in gaming.

“Everyone’s going to expect to be entertained with everything that they do,” Heitzman says. “If you make it through this program, if you’re a savant, if you’re amazing, you’re not going to have a problem finding a job anywhere. If you’re a programmer, you’re not going to have a problem finding a job. And once you get it, you’re in.”


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