Do Degrees Matter?

For most geeks, there’s no greater career aspiration than being a professional in the gaming industry – unless you count getting rich off stock options and living off interest for the rest of your life (but who doesn’t have that dream?). Who can blame them? Professional conferences are like Disneyland for adults, meetings with vendors brings T-shirts that you’d actually like to wear, and we all get to make true the Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoon from 20 or so years ago, the one with the parents dreaming of all the money their son would make in computer games.

Tell people game design is a regular job, with the usual problems on the corporate level, and they’ll scoff. Remind them that “playing games all day” consists of playing a broken game over and over again to find and replicate bugs, and they’ll call you a killjoy. Fact is, and we all know it, a videogame career is pretty damn cool.

One of the most popular questions gaming industry professionals receive is, “How can I get into the gaming industry?” And in the last few decades, some institutions have come forward to answer that question.

Many people simply don’t know what skills you need to get into the industry. What do the engineers need? Artists? What if you just want to design, or produce? Until recently, traditional colleges didn’t typically focus their degrees toward videogames, so it can be confusing. And heck, when perusing the job postings for the industry, college degrees are often mentioned as “preferred” instead of “required,” if they’re mentioned at all. Several industry veterans have no degree at all. And so, academic institutions have been established in recent decades to address this need.

These programs look to be answers to everyone’s prayers. First, you have professors who will tell you exactly what skills you need to pursue your desired career. Second, you’ll be among peers who have the same ambitions you do. What’s more, some schools offer degrees in two years, allowing you to save the time – and expense – you would normally spend at a traditional four-year college.

Industry veterans see the value in such programs. Having someone enter a company with experience in how a game gets put together is important; most job listings require some sort of experience. Richard Dansky, Design Manager at Red Storm Entertainment as well as Central Clancy Writer for UbiSoft, thinks degrees are a positive thing. “It gives [students] context and an understanding of what some of the expectations are. They’ve been through a form of game development process and have a better idea of what it actually takes to make a game as a result,” he said. “It’s a great thing there are programs developing. It’s a young field and there’s a lot of making it up as we go along, and training people in what is expected and needed is a real positive in terms of integrating new developers into the workforce smoothly.”

Jim Van Verth, Senior Engineer at Red Storm, echoes the pros. “If [game design programs] are designed properly, they give you lots of good experience in working on game projects and working on a team, which is not always something you get in a normal academic course. So you definitely get a good sense of what it’s like to work in that sort of environment. And of course, [students] are going to work on skills that are going to be useful in that environment.”

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Self-described “recovering game developer” David Weinstein says, “Any degree focused-education gets you three things. It gets you the opportunity to learn; how much of that you take advantage of is up to you. … It provides networking opportunities. A theater program in Manhattan offers a lot more networking opportunities than one in Dubuque. Here is where the better game-oriented degree programs (for example, Digipen, Full Sail and the Guild Hall ) have a great deal to offer – all three of those schools have superb contacts throughout the game industry. The third thing the schools offer is a credential. It is a loan of reputation from the school to the graduate.”

On the downside, there is some concern that these colleges are too narrow in their focus. The Full Sail program offers two-year degrees in recording arts and film as well as game design. While their website boasts many success stories of their students going on to succeed in their chosen career, the credits students have gained toward their degree are non-transferable to most four-year universities. This means any attempt to build on their education may place them squarely at the freshman level of most colleges.

“I would still strongly advise that you get a traditional CS [computer science] degree from the best school you can get into, and work your ass off,” Weinstein says. “Learn everything you can (and not just CS – that makes you one-dimensional and boring). This is your chance to learn from world experts in a whole range of fields; take advantage of it. Get a strong, balanced education, and work on game development skills in class projects when you can, and outside of them when you cannot. And work on those people skills. When you are looking for an entry-level job, the two things that are important are the light behind the eyes, and how well you work with others.”

Not all gaming programs are two-year degrees. The Nintendo-affiliated DigiPen Institute of Technology, in Redmond, offers a rigorous four-year degree, along with a Master’s degree in computer science. They are working on a Ph.D. program, as well. DigiPen is one of the most popular schools in the field, and the top students have an excellent chance finding a career in gaming.

Dansky cautions, however, that while the degrees may teach you much about game development, the degrees are not a magic bullet into a job in gaming. “A game design degree is no more a pass into a job in the industry than a degree in any other industry. It’s just one more thing you can put in your toolkit. … At this point, experience still trumps any sort of formal degree.”

Van Verth worries about the long-term value of the degrees. “The big problem, as I see it, is that the game industry can be a rough place to work. Turnover can be high. Some people just drop out. At one point, you were a veteran if you had worked in the industry for five years. So by signing up for a program that focuses entirely on game development, you’re banking your future that that is what you want to do for the rest of your life. If you decide you want to do something more lucrative [in engineering], like write financial or database software, it’s going to be tough.”

But traditional universities are getting in on the business, too. The Global Gaming League, a worldwide leader in live videogame events, listed the top 10 gaming colleges. Established schools filled out eight of the 10 spots, with University of Texas topping the list, followed by Penn State University and Rochester Institute of Technology. Full Sail came in at No. 10 and DigiPen at No. 5.

Steven Jacobs, a faculty member of RIT, says they offer a standard undergraduate degree, requiring the liberal arts classes and other courses that round out a full degree. Marq Singer, an eight-year industry veteran in game engineering, lectures occasionally at RIT. He says the four-year (or more, as RIT offers a Master’s degree in gaming, as well) programs offer a strong foundation for those who wish to go into gaming. “I know it’s clich

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