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Ari Encarnacion didn’t care for sports growing up. Instead, he was hooked on RuneScape, a massive multiplayer fantasy game he played for years.

Now, 22, he’s creating his own computer game, but it’s no child’s play. He’s taking a game development course at Santa Rosa Junior College, which this fall revived its game programming degree after previously unsuccessful attempts.

“It’s something that the junior college should and needs to offer as the (gaming) industry gets larger,” said Encarnacion, of Sonoma.

The college offered the introductory course on game development online this semester, as well as game design. Plans for next semester call for offering the beginning courses, along with more advanced ones.

Classes filled up quickly this semester, said Donald Laird, chair of the computer studies department that oversees the gaming program. He expects they’ll do the same in the spring.

“We’re adding additional sections in the spring semester because of the demand,” he said, noting the classes this fall have about 35 students each.

SRJC officials first approved the major six years ago. While it offered some gaming classes over the years, the college didn’t have faculty to consistently teach the courses, Laird said.

That’s changed. The 36,000-student college now has a full-time instructor, Ethan Wilde, dedicated to the program. The Sonoma County native, who previously taught at Academy of Art University’s Graduate School of New Media in San Francisco, is teaching game development, while new adjunct instructor Alejandro Jauco will be teaching game design on a part-time basis.

To obtain an associate’s degree in game programming, students must complete 32 credits, including game development and design, digital media, computer programming, data structures, and algorithms and calculus.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, 77 universities and colleges across the state have video game programs, but just a handful of community colleges offer associate’s degrees.

Laird said the college is trying to meet a demand. Many students have requested the classes, eager to enter the high-paying gaming industry. Businesses also frequently reach out to the college, looking to hire students with game programming skills.

“With unemployment being so incredibly low, these companies are desperately trying to find employees,” Laird said. “Right now is a good time to be getting into this.”

It’s a booming industry, particularly in the state and Bay Area, Wilde said. California is home to about 850 game companies, far more than any other state, according to the Entertainment Software Association. More than 300 of the companies are located in the San Francisco area. Video game software sales exceeded $24.5 billion last year, the association reported.

“We’re right on the lip of that,” Wilde said. “We’re on the edge of this vibrant community.”

Texas came in second as the state with the most game companies, with just under 270 businesses, according to the association’s industry analysis released in February.

In California, the companies employed more than 35,000 workers, accounting for more than half the industry’s workforce. About 16,500 jobs were in the San Francisco area.

Drawn to the strong job market, SRJC student Tom Hart enrolled in the game development class this semester. Although he’s majoring in computer science and natural science, the Santa Rosa resident also is considering a gaming career.

“It comes down to practical consideration,” said Hart, who previously worked in the technology field testing software.

Wilde said the mobile app market fueled much of the gaming industry’s growth. Smartphones opened the field for small and independent makers, allowing them to publish their games in places like Apple’s App Store, he said.

Encarnacion eventually plans to transfer to UC Santa Cruz, which offers a computer game design undergraduate degree. A musician, he’d like to become a game audio programmer.

He’s already looking into different companies in the North Bay, Seattle and southern California.

“This is a perfect time to do it,” Encarnacion said. “It’s not stopping anytime soon.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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