Editor’s note: John Gaudiosi covers the video game industry for Local Tech Wire and writes the Gaming Guru blog for WRAL.com.

CARY, N.C. – Want to get into the booming videogame business?

Over 200 colleges, universities and technical schools across the country now offer some type of degree in videogame design, programming and art.

From certificate programs in 3D Animation & Interactive Media (Boston University) to master’s degrees in Computer Graphics and Game Technology (University of Pennsylvania), the programs reflect the growing importance of video games on the economy and culture of the United States. Locally, Wake Tech made the list put out by the Entertainment Software Association.

Despite uncertain economic times, the video game industry continues to thrive. Over the past 12 years, annual U.S. software sales have nearly quadrupled, with 2007 generating a record $9.5 billion in revenue. Global growth, meanwhile, is expected to reach double digits in the next four years, leading to approximately $68 billion in revenue by 2012, according to a recent study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. New data shows that current 2008 sales are up 30 percent over last year.

Because of such sales, the video game industry supports a rapidly increasing number of American jobs. According to economist Stephen E. Siwek, game companies in 2006 directly and indirectly employed more than 80,000 people across 31 states, with total compensation totaling $2.2 billion. According to Brookings Institution senior fellow Robert W. Crandall and Georgetown University Law Center professor J. Gregory Sidak, by next year the game industry will employ 250,000 people in the U.S. alone.

Long a source of entertainment, video games are now also being used for more serious pursuits. A recent study conducted by KRC Research revealed that seventy percent of major employers utilize interactive software and games to train employees. Among this group, seventy-five percent plan to expand their usage within the next three to five years. Even most of the businesses and non-profit organizations not already utilizing the technology are likely to offer it by 2013, the study found.

As videogames extend their reach into more facets of American society, academic institutions at all levels are responding. Over the next decade, even more art schools, community colleges and traditional universities are expected to expand their course offerings in game design and development.

But unlike most industries, where college degrees are required, more game jobs are awarded to smart and savvy gamers who’ve self-taught themselves using programs like Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3. Time Sweeney, founder and chief technology officer at Epic, just told me this week in San Jose that 40 percent of Epic employees came from the modding world. That means that while education is always great, modding is one of the best ways into this fast-growing industries.