Erin Hoffman's Inside Job

Erin Hoffman's Inside Job
My Perfect Game Design Degree

Erin Hoffman | 4 Apr 2008 21:00
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To close out the student series of Inside Job, I want to recklessly tackle head-on what appears to me a glaring lack in most game education programs: a definition system for a degree in game design. It is a lack for specific reasons, and most of them noble: there is currently no university that has definitively established what category game design even falls under, and if you can't place a discipline, what business do you have instructing an entire program? Some colleges, particularly smaller ones hungry to differentiate themselves from larger, slower research institutions, have made the claim that they teach game design, but the vast majority of them don't live up to their claims even remotely. There is currently such lack of definition in the game education field that it is possible to find universities staffing game design classes with graphic design instructors without a single game title to their name.

I find this to be deceptive and egregious on its face, but unfortunately the only solution comes with the passage of time and the retirement of experienced game designers into the teaching field, something that is only in its first phases. This lack of definition, though, also makes it interesting to explore game education more conceptually: What program, I asked myself, could create a perfect game designer, one that would scare me into fearing for my job?

(I also figured that if game design is awesome, then designing a game designer might be, in fact, the road to awe itself.)

The IGDA's game education SIG recently completed its 2007 Curriculum Framework, a boilerplate document intended to provide educators with a starting point for their development of game education programs. Most of these programs currently offer degrees in "game development," at least the ones that are not being so dishonest as to claim that they're teaching "game design" without the necessary expertise.

The problem is that, while I appreciate their honesty, I'm not exactly sure what a "game development" or "game production" degree prepares you to perform. A "game studies" degree seems like it might be more specific, but, similar to a degree in literature, most likely specifically prepares you to become a professor of "game studies" and not much else.

Practically speaking, most roles in game development are covered by other areas of study: programming by computer science, art by art studies of various kinds, production by management. The discipline that is the true black box remains game design - the thing everyone wants to do, but nearly no one can actually describe or define.

What is game design?
The problem of where to put a game design program is complex, and comes down to game design still being a square peg surrounded by round holes. I've argued that it's a subset of sociology, but it is likely - and dangerous - that nearly any strong humanities school could effectively house a small department in interactive studies. However, because the actual study and application of game design is most closely connected to mathematics, keeping a department populated purely with humanities specialists would be a great oversight. Ideally I think a game design department, if it can't be purely interdisciplinary, belongs in cognitive science, philosophy (analytical), or sociology.

Game design is many things, but its core objectives basically come down to:
1. making a game in your head - a game that works and is fun - and testing it in your head before you waste a whole lot of other people's time implementing it; and
2. communicating this design so effectively that, assuming sufficient exchange of time for expertise, anyone with the willpower could implement your design and achieve the desired result.

Obviously, number one is excruciatingly difficult, and is what we spend so much time trying to define. But it does mean that systems of modeling - high level math being first among them, but also arguably narrative - have equally significant impact. The nature of games as encapsulated social systems - to borrow from Dr. Eliot Avedon - or encapsulated worlds is what makes them both intuitive (sometimes deceptively so) and complex.

Number two is simpler but by no means simple in itself. It primarily involves writing but is assisted by management science and psychology. Touching base on all of these brings us to ...

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