NYU’s Media and Games Network (MAGNET) is typically a beehive of activity, and many of those drawn there (like bees to honey, as it were) hail from the School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. That might be surprising if you’ve never considered computer scientists to be a particularly playful or game-loving lot.

Professor John Sterling remembers a long-ago time when gaming did, indeed, receive somewhat short shrift within the department. “Students kept asking for a course though,” he says. “Because I was a programmer who happened to be interested in games, I was charged with creating one. That’s how ‘Intro to Game Programming’ came into being.” Later, in 2009, the establishment of the Game
Innovation Lab generated enormous buzz (last bee pun, we promise!) in the department. “Things really took off then,” Sterling recalls. (The success and popularity of the Lab is widely thought to have been one of the catalysts for the formation of MAGNET here at the MetroTech Center, and the Lab’s director, Associate Professor Katherine Isbister now represents the School of Engineering on the MAGNET Presidium.)

To see the spirit of playfulness that pervades CSE’s contributions to MAGNET, look no further than such interdisciplinary projects as Fidget Widgets, small, programmable devices (one of which mimics the action of popping bubble wrap) to help researchers gain a better understanding of the playful, tactile experiences people engage in while at work. Or consider the development of gesture-based passwords by students of Isbister and other professors. (More than just fun, the passwords provide serious security; users move their fingers over the screen instead of entering letters or numbers, and  the computer remembers the hand and gesture—as individual and hard to hack as a fingerprint.)

Andy Nealen is another member of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering who has made a major impact at MAGNET—and even brought, some might say, a modicum of fame, since his award-winning computer game “Osmos” was featured in an episode of The Simpsons. (In the episode, the award-winning game proves hypnotic to one of the characters.)

Working with teachers and researchers like Nealen, who are at the forefront of gaming, means that students are learning what’s actually going on in the industry, and the option for CSE students to minor in game engineering means they just might be there at the forefront themselves one day. As the editors of Game Developer magazine pointed out in a recent career guide, “Programmers make the (game) world go round,” and their salaries reflect that.