REDMOND, Wash. For Kevin Sheehan, video games were more than a hobby growing up. They were a much needed lifeline from real-world pitfalls. He would escape into the role-playing game World of Warcraft, and as strange as it may sound, it changed him.

I had been learning lesson through World of Warcraft about social politics, leadership, hard work, goal setting, etc., he said. That was carrying over into my real life.

Now he wants to make video games that can help others. So he is attending the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, a school that teaches students about game design, art, animation and more.

This is second to nobody, Sheehan said. This is the Harvard of game development.

When it comes to interactive media companies, no other region is the country has a higher concentration than the 30 square miles surrounding Bellevue, industry experts claim. The industry employs more than 17,000 people in the Seattle area, a recent survey discovered.

With console games, online games and mobile games, there are ample opportunities to break into the business, but it is far from easy.

It s great work, it s very engaging, it s interesting stuff, said DigiPen senior executive Raymond Yan. But it s work.

Sheehan and a team of classmates have spent the past nine months developing a game called Rekkage. In this very social game, players customize their ships with weapons and tools, then go to battle.

It took 30 prototypes to even get to this point and they have a lot more work to do, including building a stronger graphic look. They are constantly tweaking every detail, right down to the missles.

They could be a little bit stronger, Sheehan commented. They re too easy to dodge at this point.

Sheehan admits the work is incredibly hard. And it is just the beginning of what it takes to make it big.

The next level

A couple weeks ago, industry leaders gathered in Bellevue for the Power of Play conference to hear from up-and-coming game developers.

One of the presentations came from Refract Studios, DigiPen grads who, as students, created Nitronic Rush, a racing game that got 600,000 downloads. The team is now working on a sequel.

Like most of the teams at the conference, they are getting help through the Washington Interactive Network s Reactor, a high-tech incubator funded with federal grant money, designed to help game makers get to the next level.

At DigiPen, Nitronic Rush serves as inspiration for Sheehan and his team.

If you keep going down this path, I do think you can get something really exceptional, just oen of the top DigiPen games played, instructor Benjamin Ellinger told the group. This is the type of thing that can change the course of your life.

Art of Video Games exhibit

A new exhibition, The Art of Video Games, opened Friday at the EMP Museum. It explores the 40-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium.

Here are some helpful links mentioned in this story: DigiPen Institute of Technology,Washington Interactive Network and theEMP's new exhibit on the art of video games.