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Mass. hopes to cash in on video games industry with institute in Worcester

Becker College associate professor of game design Curvin Huber, right, works with junior Nathan Berry during a 3-D Modelling class at the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute at Becker in Worcester. (T&G Staff/PAUL KAPTEYN)

Nicholas Allain is hoping that digital game enthusiasts will one day be able to log onto their laptops and enter the “Grove,” a visually magical place where visitors compete to seed and cultivate strange computer-generated forests.

“The point is to bring a barren wasteland back to life,” said the 24-year-old Shepherd Hill Regional High School alumnus.

Together with three fellow graduates of degree programs at Becker College, Mr. Allain has established Turtle Boy Games, which is aimed at helping students break into the digital games business.

The company — named after the iconic statue on Worcester Common — is in the early stages of developing “Grove,” an “ecologically conscious” game that the firm’s founders hope may some day rival such top selling video and computer offerings as “Call of Duty,” “The Sims” and “Super Mario.”

To state officials, Mr. Allain and his young colleagues represent what may very well be the Bay State’s newest generation of entrepreneurs.

Over the past year, the state has been working to carve out a bigger piece of the lucrative video-computer games industry.

For example, in conjunction with academic and other partners, it established the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute at Becker College to improve software technologies and to increase collaboration between the games industry and academia.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, consumers nationally spent $25.1 billion last year on games industry products. The trade group estimates that 72 percent of American households play computer or video games.

Meanwhile, state officials, referring to the findings of a 2009 report by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, said local game companies garner about $2 billion in sales annually.

About 5,000 people are employed by the industry in Massachusetts, and there are about 75 games-related firms in the state.

Insiders and analysts also note that the relatively new games industry generates well-paying jobs.

For example, Jeff Goodsill, a veteran interactive entertainment executive who now serves as vice president and general manager at Tencent Boston, estimated that the average industry salary is $90,000.

Mr. Goodsill, who has worked on such game franchises as “NASCAR Racing,” “Titan Quest,” and “Dawn of War,” said most startup companies will fail for a variety of reasons, but stressed that the industry continues to steadily grow and that there is a huge demand for game professionals.

“If you look at the revenues, this industry now dwarfs that of the film and music industries combined,” said state Rep. Vincent A. Pedone, a self-professed cheerleader for the games industry on Beacon Hill. “Just look around. Everybody’s got ‘Angry Birds’ or some kind of other game on their cellphones.”

The Worcester Democrat said the games industry has the potential for generating thousands of jobs.

“When you create a game, you need more than just the designers. You have to hire actors, writers, software developers, sound people and production staff,” said Mr. Pedone, who is spearheading a drive at the Statehouse to expand the tax credits now given to filmmakers to include the video game industry. “This industry is where bio-tech was a generation ago.”

State officials believe Massachusetts is an incubator for games development and they hope to expand the blossoming industry to $20 billion annually in five years.

The key, they said, is to bring academia and the industry together in order to entice students who studied game development to stay in Massachusetts when they graduate, and to create more jobs.

According to Timothy Loew, executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute at Becker, about two dozen colleges in the state provide games courses, with about half of them offering specific concentrations or degrees.

Becker offers undergraduate concentrations in game design and game programming. This year, the school set up a waiting list after accepting 100 freshmen interested in pursuing studies in game development.

Mr. Loew said Worcester Polytechnic Institute recently instituted a master’s degree in interactive media and game development.

“We have kids in the pipeline,” said Mr. Loew. “Now we need to offer them a place to practice what they learned.”

Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray said the institute is designed to provide the synergy for growing the industry in Massachusetts.

The institute is located in a 91-year-old, 12,962-square-foot mansion at 80 William St., which was purchased by Becker last summer for $575,000. The building served for decades as the residence for the president of Clark University.

U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, who spearheaded the successful effort to get $500,000 in federal funding for the nascent institute, said the industry is important because of its applications in a number of fields, including the military and education.

“If (Leonardo) da Vinci were alive today, he would be a games maker,” said Jon Radoff, a games entrepreneur, who spoke recently at a local symposium about the industry.

Mr. Radoff, who in 1992 founded NovaLink, an online game publisher that created “Legends of Future Past,” said that games creators bring together science, engineering, art and other skills.

At the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester students have been using game simulations and devices to learn how to perform surgery.

“These simulations and equipment are becoming more and more important in medical education,” said Mark L. Shelton, the school’s associate chancellor for communications.

Mr. Shelton said the devices teach hand-eye coordination, and some are so sophisticated that they can mimic the sensation of touch.

For example, officials said that students practicing colonoscopies on such equipment can feel what it’s like to move an endoscope, a lighted optical instrument, inside a colon in search of polyps.

Officials said that some of the devices deduct points if the instruments used by the would-be surgeons stray from their intended targets.

Mr. Shelton said that an expert from the Duke University School of Medicine will meet next month with area doctors about using devices that can train members of a surgical team at the same time.

In the training exercise, participants assume roles such as the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, scrub nurses and other personnel that might be found in an operating room.

“The technology is just amazing,” said Mr. Shelton.