That commercial. Everyone’s seen it. A pair of living anachronisms from the world of Doogie Howser, MD pound a pair of controllers, gyrating and darting their heads to various stock blips and bloops. “Oh, hurry up, man, boss is comin’ in,” one says to the other, who whines, “Dude, almost got it,” cuing the entrance of a pony-tailed brunette with an “oh, those boys” smile. “Hey guys, finished testing that game yet? I’ve got another one I need designed.” Cringe number one. ’90s Boy No. 2 gives his best My First Briefcase performance:

“We just finished level 3 and need to tighten the graphics a little bit.” Cringe number two.

Then the kicker: The ever-smiling “boss” (was she a producer? A testing lead? A delusional sociopath? The world may never know) departs, and ’90s Boy No. 2, sly and conspiratorial, says, “Hey, I can’t believe we got jobs doing this.” His partner: “I know! And my mom said I’d never get anywhere with these games!”

The now two-year-old commercial for Denver-based Westwood College was intended to snare gamers and aired on cable channels across the U.S. But not only was it chock full of unintentional humor (even spawning numerous parodies), it offended the information-savvy subculture with its prolific errors: What exactly were the actors doing? What were they testing, why did it require both of them, and why did neither of them seem to be particularly good at it? Were they testers? Designers? Either case demands the question: “Tighten the graphics”? What does that even mean?

The commercial marked the vanguard of a disturbing trend in game education: advertised instructional programs so out of touch with actual game development they couldn’t tell a sound effect from a polygon.

The Minefield
But what most offended the gaming community was that the commercial almost certainly resulted in increased enrollment for Westwood. The wildfire internet popularity of the ad touched off an issue waiting to explode: Westwood, like many colleges, was taking advantage of the tremendous upsurge in gaming popularity coupled with the unavailability of formal game development instruction.

Over the past several years, numerous universities have branched slowly into game development as an art and a science (as well as occasionally a psychology, an ethic, a philosophy – you name it; the huge popularity of games as a rising new media meant everybody wanted to get involved). But these large institutions move slowly, with attention to their reputations; the careful growth of such programs meant that niche markets for game instruction opened up ahead of the larger universities. Enter the community college.

Community and small private colleges in particular had the flexibility to move quickly and also target a vast majority of individuals outside the university scene. Not everyone can afford major university tuition, and a big chunk of that “not everyone” is passionately interested in videogames. Unlike electrical engineering or business management, game development carries an appeal to a full vertical slice through society, as games-as-media often reach deeper into society than movies do.

But the educational minefield is not restricted to gaming world novices or those without access to prestigious universities. We all want to learn, and that learning comes with an ever-increasing price tag. The CMP Game Group alone – pilot of the still eminent Game Developers Conference in northern California – offers more than seven conferences throughout the year, and each is billed as a “can’t miss”; even a full-time game developer could go bankrupt jet-setting to them all. On top of CMP’s offerings, the Montreal International Games Summit continues to gain momentum, and subject-specific conferences such as the recent Online Game Development Conference (OGDC) and steadily growing Games for Health Conference add to the bill. These venues – at least the commercially sponsored ones – have also caught on to the growing student audience; CMP’s roster now includes the heavily advertised “Game Career Seminar Series,” specifically targeting starry-eyed dev hopefuls.

This proliferation of potential instruction is nothing if not overwhelming to the new and passionate game development apprentice. And with colleges offering programs left and right, for premium prices, the sharks are circling. But who are they?

The Players
Westwood College isn’t alone, but it certainly – for good or ill – has become one of the most visible players in the small college instruction niche. I spoke with Sean Lynott, Career Development advisor for Westwood’s game development programs (of which there are two: Game Art and Design and Game Software Development), about what Westwood had to offer.

Remote instruction programs such as those offered by Westwood and California-based Cerra Coso College offer students a variety of general skill classes (particularly in areas of 3-D animation and programming) as well as practical instruction on the compilation of competitive portfolios, working professionally in teams and planning one’s career. With no need to generalize about theory, these colleges can directly address the vocational needs of their students, preparing them for a work environment in a way that major universities often consider “beneath” them.

In addition to the low cost of enrollment, community and small colleges offer practicality and skill focus. But are they delivering the best education possible? The primary criticism of these programs has been their lack of connection with actual game development – criticism also levied at larger universities, which suffer a catch-22: Upscale universities require all of their professors to have Ph.D.s, but with few exceptions, there are no Ph.D.s for game development, and even if there were, you wouldn’t commonly see a practicing developer carrying one.

The bugbear, ultimately, is in the instruction of game design. While game art and game programming are distinct specializations with their own manifold quirks and details, it is possible to be a phenomenal artist and never work on games; it is possible to be a genius caliber programmer and never code gameplay. It is not, however, possible to be a game designer without making games. The notion is patently absurd. Yet this is exactly what many private college instructors – and even, in some cases, faculty at major universities – are claiming they can do.

So what about the voice of experience? Lynott agreed that the only true test of an instruction program was the success of its students, and programs like Westwood’s, he said, were too young yet to have encountered those tests. But through technology and industry connections, Westwood is doing its best to maximize opportunity for its students, including negotiating with major developers for internship programs and bringing in professional developers to speak to their classes.

Through use of the same technology the online colleges use to instruct their students – in Westwood’s case, Adobe’s Breeze software – the Career Development department arranges sessions where the students can watch an instructor’s computer actions remotely while listening to a lecture delivered over online audio. At the end of the session, they participate in a conference call with the speaker for Q&A. Recently, Westwood arranged for IGDA Executive Director Jason Della Rocca to speak to their game dev classes.

“The students seemed quite engaged and had a lot of good questions,” Della Rocca said. While he felt there was no real substitute for live instruction, he said Westwood’s technology and the tools used by colleges like it potentially gave students access to industry experts even larger universities might never see. In addition to bringing in industry notables, Westwood is also organizing an advisory board composed of game development professionals to review their programs – a step a number of universities are taking and a feature prospective students would do well to watch for and request in their own programs.

And the infamous commercial? A marketing department debacle of which the college was quite aware. “They didn’t really know much about the gaming world,” Lynott said. New advertisements are currently in development and will be reviewed by the new professional advisory board.

Object Lessons
In the European game community, programs that claimed to teach game development but offered no experienced instruction of any sort leapt into prevalence a few years ago. “There was a mad dash to capitalize on game degrees. Most of it was utter crap, which resulted in an industry backlash and lack of acceptance,” Della Rocca said. “This led to a more formal approach to accrediting programs.”

The U.K. went through a graphics tightening incident severe enough to make Westwood look like masters of the marketing universe. The result was the formation of a game industry branch of the Sector Skills Council for the Audio Visual Industries. In 2006, the Computer Games Skills Forum, chaired by Eidos Product Acquisitions Director Ian Livingstone, selected four university programs in the U.K. for accreditation: two at the University of Abertay Dundee, one at the University of Paisley and one at the Glamorgan Center for Art & Design Technology.

Today, Skillset sponsors a GAMES:EDU conference to discuss games in education, held in Brighton.

Whether accreditation is next in the U.S. remains to be seen. With the large body of “live” game development occurring in the States, aspiring developers tend to educate and police themselves and the organizations that would offer instruction. And the question appears often: What should students do?

The IGDA itself is the first natural resource for students, and certainly has provided a vector into the industry for many. Student membership is arguably one of the best investments – outside of the development of concrete skills – that a student can make in his career. For the IGDA, Della Rocca was direct: “We want to be a valuable resource to all educators interested in game dev education and provide the resources and guidance they need to not suck.”

The Passion
The game community’s response to Westwood’s commercial exemplifies its character. In nearly every other industry, education scams are accepted as a matter of course. To some they even serve a purpose, separating the wheat from the chaff – it’s every dev for themselves, in other words, and if you get sucked into a scam, it’s your own fault for being stupid.

But that’s not the gaming community. Gamers and developers alike were outraged at this commercial; almost curiously so. One YouTube user who posted the video, “randomgenius,” was especially upset: “The hill to success is hard enough without money grubbing colleges who offer no true training, but so eagerly take your money.” While the advertisement was clearly a marketing mistake rather than representative of what Westwood actually teaches, this sentiment is rife among those trying to get a job making games. That no one goes into games for the money is an accepted truth, and the corollary to that fact is that anyone truly serious about a game career must be intensely passionate about the biz.

It is the job of any commercial to make life look easy. Commercials offer a dream world where our visions are delivered to us gently scintillating on silver platters. But for people like randomgenius, this illusion is salt in the wound. “[T]o make it appear that breaking into the industry is a cake walk is simply naive,” he adds in his introduction to the video.

A number of questions remain to be answered. Can a college really claim to be teaching game development if their faculty has no game development experience? Where does theory end and practice begin? Is it more important to be a strong communicator and teach solid skills, or to have spent time in the trenches? On one issue the industry is unanimous: There is no replacement for live experience. But experience making games does not immediately correlate to skill in instructing and inspiring students.

Time will have the final say – which is unwelcome news for current hopefuls. But the bright side is game instruction in academia gets better every year, and this can only mean good things for the industry as a whole. Increasing numbers of programs, small and large, are bringing in developers as adjunct instructors, and game analysis itself is a tremendous skill growing in academia apart from its production-based siblings. Smaller programs like Westwood’s offer options for the part-time and passionate, and, if a driven student can navigate through the qualitative labyrinth of program options, ask sharp questions, make some professional connections and land an internship, he has a better chance at making it into the industry than most of us had before these programs existed.

With passion and energy, doors will open, and as academic game programs mature, they keep getting wider. Just don’t forget to tighten those graphics.

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.

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