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Video game valley

WHAT WAS THAT Baltimore County promotion booth doing in San Jose, Calif., when thousands of America's computer game developers gathered there in March for their annual convention?

Trying to snake away a little more business for Baltimore County's Hunt Valley, which has become one of the nation's leading production centers outside California for entertainment and military simulations. A dozen programming companies are now based there, employing 600 people.

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This is a dramatic change from 1985, when programmer Sid Meier, joined by Bill Stealey, set off to revolutionize what was still largely a board game industry. Within a few years, their pioneering MicroProse Software Inc. in Hunt Valley became a virtual university for computer game programming, attracting top talent and spawning rival firms offering well-paying jobs.

MicroProse has subsequently had its ups and downs and its founders have gone their separate ways. But Mr. Meier is still in Hunt Valley and computer games have grown into a $10 billion industry with a staggering future potential.

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Or as County Executive James T. Smith Jr. puts it, "We are not just playing here. This is an emerging economic development opportunity."

A visit to BreakAway Ltd. is an eye-opener. The 5-year-old company has developed several award-winning entertainment and historical games.

Nowadays, it is increasingly working for the Department of Defense, producing training simulators that are used in war colleges as well as on battlefields.

BreakAway President Deborah Tillett says of the soldiers who will be using the product: "They are the virtual recruits. They grew up playing video games."

The computer generation is crowding civilian work environments as well, creating new needs and opportunities for unusual applications of video games. The Community College of Baltimore County and the University of Baltimore recognized this trend in the spring, when they launched a four-year degree program in multimedia and game development.

In cooperation with the state, Baltimore County is even assisting video game developers with low-interest loans and training grants.

Public funds for games? Unusual, but imaginative, and a good investment.

If the simulation industry grows the way its boosters predict, the local payoff could be huge.


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