When Bob Kessler was a child in Southern California, his father, a mechanical engineer in the aerospace industry, showed him the rockets he'd designed that propelled NASA's Apollo command module into space. Little did he know then that, years later his own love affair with computers would help propel the University of Utah's Entertainment Arts & Engineering (EAE) to the No. 1 program in the country.
In its latest rankings, The Princeton Review ranks the innovative EAE program, co-founded and headed by Park City resident Robert Kessler, as the top video game design program in the United States. Even more impressive when you consider that the program Kessler heads up was only founded in 2007, and still managed to push previous leader USC out of first place and M.I.T. further down in the top 10 rankings.
Kessler's love affair with computers began in 1970 when he first came in contact with a super computer. Having completed his own undergraduate degree at the University of Utah, Kessler now commutes to the same Salt Lake campus every day from his Park Meadows home. "I fell in love with Park City in 1988 when we first bought a vacation property in Park Meadows," says Kessler, an avid golfer, who moved full time to Park City in 2005 and has never looked back.
His EAE program, a collaborative melding of the School of Computing and the Department of Film & Media Arts, encompasses undergraduate and graduate programs that teach students to develop, design and even publish video games.
"It's all about artists and engineers working together," says Kessler, a Park City homeowner (and golfer) since 1988 and fulltime resident since 2005. "We teach programming to engineers and our engineers take fine art classes because this is a process of expressing yourself artistically whether your background is engineering or fine art." Kessler describes this very left brained/right-brained sensibility as one that requires simply a matter of time working together for each discipline to begin truly understanding one another.
The results have been nothing short of remarkable considering that the first class graduated in 2011. Take, for example, the 16 graduate students in the 2012 class - all 16 got jobs, most of them in the video game industry with companies like Electronic Arts, Disney Interactive, Zynga and Microsoft.
Kessler attributes much of the success and readiness of his EAE graduates to transition to real world business experience to the school's unique 'Capstone' program, a year long senior project whereby students work together to design, create and publish a videogame from the ground up.
"It's the most important project the students do," says Kessler, "with larger teams of 10-15 students working together artists and engineers to first pitch, then build a video game prototype with concept art." The school brings in some of its local industry contacts that evaluate which games they feel should be made over the course of two semesters. Adds Kessler, "When one of our graduates applies for a job in the real world, they can show the prospective employer a real world credit of a published game."
But with all of the rankings, recognition and accolades for the EAE program, Kessler points to one particular contribution as a true source of pride; namely, the application of a number of EAE video games to helping people with medical issues.
The school's first foray into the health care industry was a game called 'PE', which stands for both 'Physical Exercise' and 'Patient Empowerment'. Designed to help children battling cancer get through painful and arduous chemotherapy sessions, kids use motion controllers to control a superhero who is, himself, in recovery from an undisclosed illness with one particular "bad guy" a Crab (representing the disease as well as the astrological sign of Cancer) - his only obstacle to getting better. As children weaken and defeat the crab/cancer enemy, they see themselves getting stronger.
"If you think you're getting better," affirms Kessler, "you tend to actually get better. So the goal is that these children will relate to their characters and hopefully get stronger and healthier themselves." 'PE' is currently going through clinical trials at Primary Children's Hospital where kids undergoing chemotherapy play the game a couple times a day and are then measured to see if their condition improves.
"The ultimate goal," says Kessler, "is to reduce the length of hospital stays for kids in chemotherapy. If you reduce it by one day, think not only about sick kids getting better, but also the reduction of stays for the hospital on the business side."
Peter Smaha is a writer who sold his advertising agency in Los Angeles to live and work in Park City. He can be reached at email@example.com