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updated 10/02/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/02/2000 01:00AM

A group of young men stops to watch as a black plastic crate is wheeled out of a classroom at the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash. "Mario's in there," Digipen's chief operating officer Jason Chu whispers reverently.

Mario worship may seem odd, but at DigiPen, said to be the first U.S. college that offers a bachelor's degree specifically in video game programming, the hero of the classic Nintendo game—whose costume had been lent for a graduation ceremony—is understandably an idol. DigiPen, the brainchild of 42-year-old architect and engineer Claude Comair, is fun and games, to be sure. But it's no day at the arcade. The 300 students—a mix of blue-haired guys in skateboarder shorts and preppies in chinos—often put in 12-hour school days six days a week, immersing themselves in solid analytic geometry and algorithm analysis as well as optics and aerodynamics. "This isn't for everyone," says Comair. "But for those who like it, we can't give them enough."

Nor, it seems, can the students' prospective employers. Places like Nintendo and Electronic Arts offer DigiPen grads up to $60,000 to start. Says Eric Smith, 31, valedictorian of the class of 2000: "It almost feels like a scam to get paid so well to do what I love."

Comair, who left his native Lebanon at age 18, started DigiPen in 1988 in Vancouver as an engineering-simulation firm. In '98 he moved his operation, which had been reprogrammed for video games, to Washington. Smith, for one, is happy he did. His stint at DigiPen has made him a hero to his wife Connie's third-grade class in nearby Bellevue. "The boys, especially, go nuts when I'm there," says Smith. "I tell them if they want to do what I do, they have to study hard. In addition to being the truth, it always wins me points with my wife."

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