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Jason Thummel '05 wasn't allowed to have a video-game console growing up—instead, he mastered a selection of parent-approved games on his dad's computer. He remembers, for instance, playing the wholesome, educational Reader Rabbit series.
"I can also distinctly remember playing lots and lots of the original SimCity, and how exciting it was to finally build a city up to being a metropolis," Jason said.
Little did he know, he'd later launch his career working on a spinoff of the game he played for hours as a kid. After a bit of trial and error, Jason found his calling in his longtime hobby and now works as an engineer at Electronic Arts (EA), a top company in the gaming world.
Jason's parents weren't thrilled about his love of gaming, but they took a constructive approach: his dad encouraged him to learn about how games are created. Jason—as kids are wont to do—ignored his dad. But in Jason's second year as a neuroscience major at Colorado College, he circled back to that sage advice. He realized neuroscience wasn't the right fit for him, and took a computer science (CS) class: "After that, my dad's idea suddenly seemed a lot more interesting."
So Jason transferred to the University of Utah's world-renowned Entertainment Arts and Engineering program for game design—"hands down, the best decision of my life," the alumnus said. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in CS, both from the U. As part of the master's program, he landed an EA internship working on Sims 3: Into the Future.
"I spent three months over the summer there, and had such an incredible time that I knew once I graduated it was where I wanted to start working," he said. So he applied for an entry-level client programming position, got hired, and started working there just two weeks after completing his master's.
Jason now works as a client engineer on the popular mobile game Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, and said there's no such thing as a typical day. "Some weeks, we might be adding new features to the game, the next, we might be changing existing mechanics to address player concerns, and the next, we could be focused on resolving bugs," he explained. "Because things are always changing, it's impossible to fall into a steady rhythm and get bored." And he values the collaborative aspects of his job: "I'm never just sitting at my desk coding alone. I'm often working together with other client engineers, server engineers, artists, designers, and producers."
The alumnus cited the 2015 release of Minion's Paradise as the proudest moment of his career so far—an unlikely choice given the game's fate. It floundered, Jason said, and was discontinued last year. Still, it was the first professional game he worked on from the ground up until release. "It was a year of hard work and a lot of frustration, but it was so incredibly rewarding once we shipped it."
Jason still remembers taking an HTML class in Middle School, and another computer class in the Upper School. His advanced math classes, he said, were "exceptionally valuable" and made his transition from neuroscience to CS a smooth one. His freshman year, for example, was easier than he expected: "Both Calculus I and II were mostly repeats of AP Calculus from high school. Rowland Hall excelled at preparing me for the future."
Rowland Hall has expanded its CS program substantially since Jason attended the school. Director of Technology Integration Christian Waters has been one advocate for this expansion—he's keenly aware that industries like Jason's need employees who can code or otherwise use digital tools to create media. "All careers in the future will require some working knowledge of computers, and better yet, an understanding of algorithms that can analyze and synthesize vast amounts of data," Mr. Waters said. Accordingly, Ben Smith '89—Utah Coalition for Education Technology's Outstanding Teacher of the Year for 2017—has been teaching only CS-related classes this year, including a new AP Computer Science A class focused on the Java language, the Joy of Computing, and AP Computer Science Principles.
Jason said he was glad to hear about the increased prevalence of CS classes at his alma mater. "As technology continues to advance, more and more jobs are going to benefit from, or require, some form of programming skill," he said, echoing Mr. Waters. "Not to mention the fact that just being able to write simple programs to handle trivial tasks for you can make life so much easier in small ways."
Jason encourages current Winged Lions to discover who they are and take advantage of the opportunities they have in middle and high school. "Don't be afraid to experiment and find what really interests you, even if you get it wrong a few times. I was convinced that I wanted to be a neuroscientist, and when that fell apart I was a little lost," he said. "But it wasn't the end of the world because, ultimately, it led me to find my true interest. Most importantly, make sure that you're passionate about what you want to do."
Now, Jason's advice for young gamers echoes his father's: "Play games not just to have fun, but to try and understand why they're fun, and why they're built the way they are."
In other words, practice curiosity—you never know where it might lead you.