published Sunday, May 11th, 2014

Kennedy: When college is part of the game

Steven Crane, 21, is a gamer.

On a slow week -- meaning a week without too many college classes or a heavy workload at his job -- Crane says he might spend 100 hours playing video games. His go-to titles are "Halo" and "Command & Conquer." Gaming -- like water and food -- is part of his metabolism.

"I started gaming at age 2," Crane says. "I've wanted to be a video-game programmer since I was in kindergarten."

If Crane wanted to follow his passion a generation ago, he would have probably been one of those self-taught tech geniuses who ended up in Seattle working for Nintendo. Back then, getting into the business was largely a matter of luck and pluck. (Ironically, the English translation of the Japanese word "Nintendo" is said to be "leave luck to heaven.")

Crane, on the other hand, is now just two classes short of earning an associate degree in game programming from Chattanooga State Community College. After graduation, he wants to get a four-year degree in the craft.

Last week, he and three other students finished their sophomore Capstone Project: recreating the classic video game "Super Mario Brothers."

"They wrote it from scratch and without any help," notes Adam McElhaney, instructor of the class and himself a game-design entrepreneur. "I told them I wanted them to think for themselves. That's what a true programmer does."

Parents, if video-game design sounds like a dubious career choice to you, consider this: On top of his prodigious game playing, Crane is putting himself through school by working for a local gaming company (Iron Gaming), and he hopes to continue his studies at the prestigious University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, Ariz., a training ground for some of the nation's best game innovators.

With Iron Gaming, Crane travels to cities throughout the eastern half of the United States, helping set up and officiate video game tournaments.

So let's line this all up: Crane picks a career path while he's in kindergarten, spends countless hours learning the craft, gets a part-time job in his field of focus and aspires to one of the nation's top technical schools.

Sounds like the magic combination of passion and focus to me.

Crane could be a walking advertisement for the kind of student Tennessee hopes to attract to its community colleges with its first-in-the-nation plan to offer free tuition to all high-school graduates.

"I got As and Bs in high school, and this kind of (tuition assistance) would really have helped me," Crane says. "It's been a struggle for me. Because of my family's financial situation, I haven't been able to get much support. I have to pay (for college) out of my pocket. It's difficult to work full-time and go to school."

The so-called Tennessee Promise plan, which was pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam and approved by the state Legislature, will cover the cost of community college classes for two years for every willing high school graduate starting in 2015. The plan will cost about $34 million annually, with the price tag supported by a $300 million endowment financed with state lottery money.

Sometimes we seem to be so stuck on the narrative of doom and gloom in the American economy, we fail to recognize when good ideas take wing. The combination of popular, job-centered college programs and free tuition could be a game-changer in Tennessee.

And our young people need as many options as possible to fight off the tyranny of debt and despair.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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