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34. A Question of Degree

Originally written December, 2003; Updated 2021

NOTE: these articles are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This lesson is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome.

I see a lot of questions from game biz hopefuls who are planning their college/university preparation. That's very good, that so many understand the importance of college in obtaining a game biz career. Some of the college questions have been answered already, in articles 3 and 25. The purpose of this article is to try to address some of those other frequently asked questions about college. (Note: I use the term "college" to be synonymous with "university." I realize that the word means something different in the United Kingdom. I'm American - deal with it.)

1. What should I study? - Art, design, or programming?

How on earth should I know? I don't know you!!

You should major in art if you are artistically inclined - if your family and friends are constantly commenting on your artistic ability, and asking you if you are going into art as a career. NEWS FLASH: You should not go into programming as a major if you are a budding artiste.

You should major in computer science if you are a budding programmer - if your family and friends are always commenting about your constant devotion to your computer, if you are always trying to figure out how stuff works, and if you are always fiddling with some new language or routine. EARTH TO ASTRONAUT: You should not major in art if you are a budding programmer.

You should study game design if you are always thinking about some new game idea, writing stories, and critiquing the gameplay of some new game everybody is playing. WORD TO THE WISE: Read article #3 if you want to study to become a game designer.

In other words, the major that's best for you is a matter that ONLY YOU can decide - not me (a complete stranger who doesn't know you and your special talents).

Game biz jobs are highly specialized. Some hopefuls think that they have to be able to draw and write and program - but in fact because of specialization, this isn't the case. We have artists who do the drawing (note: programmers don't have to) - and there are specialties within the field of art, as well. Some artists specialize in the design of human figures and characters. Other artists specialize in buildings and landscapes - others specialize in drawing animals, and some specialize in textures for 3D objects. We have specialization in the field of programming, as well - some programmers specialize in 3D, some in physics, some in A.I.... And the same for writing, and game design.

So you don't have to be able to do it all - you should take some courses in several different things, and find out which things you are good at - and which ones you enjoy. Ideally, your skills and your proclivities take you in similar (not opposing) directions.
Article 3 discusses college preparation for aspiring designers (see article 28 for my definition of "design"). If you want to become an artist, get a 4-year art degree. If you want to become a game programmer, get a 4-year programming or computer degree. If you want to become a story writer, get a 4-year writing or literature degree.

2. Which school should I go to to get a game biz job? - Some hopefuls think there is one special "one size fits all" school, that if they just go to that school and get that one "one size fits all" degree, that their entry into the game biz will be assured. These guys are deluding themselves. Life ain't that simple - it's simpler. You can go to ANY college or university. It doesn't matter which one you go to, as much as it matters what you do with your education.
If two candidates show up for an interview, with degrees from two different schools, it's the one who has the better portfolio - not the one who graduated from "the right school" - who will get the job. When I say "portfolio" in the sentence above, I mean "sample of work" - in whatever form that may be. The aspiring programmer who can demonstrate exceptional programming talent is going to outshine the guy who just has the degree from "the right programming school" - but hasn't bothered to ever create anything with his programming degree. The aspiring game artist who has created a more impressive body of work (and has an equivalent degree) is going to outshine the one who just has a degree from "the right art school" (if there was such a thing). Read article 25 for more about choosing the right school for YOU.

3. Then I shouldn't go to a specialized game school? - [Sigh!] I didn't say that. The candidate who has both a 4-year degree in programming or computer science, and then supplements it with an A.S. degree in game programming from a game school, is going to look better (in general) than a candidate who has the 4-year programming degree alone. These game schools have valuable stuff to teach you about making games - but if you're fresh out of high school, you need a regular college education. A short specialized degree is no substitute for a traditional, well-rounded, 4-year degree. Read article 44 for more on this topic, and read article 25 for help in choosing a school. After you've gotten your 4-year degree, if you can afford it and have the drive to learn more, go to one of those game schools to supplement your education.
For even more of my thoughts on game schools, see my June and July 2009 IGDA "The Games Game" columns, "The Whole Game School Thing." And I further recommend that you know if a school is a for-profit school or not, and what that means (link).

4. Is it worth the expense to go to DigiPen or Full Sail? They're both awfully expensive! - Those schools' programs are good. But so are the programs at a lot of mainstream universities. No game industry employer demands diplomas from those particular schools as a requirement. And folks with degrees from those schools don't necessarily find an easier time getting jobs in the industry than someone with a mainstream university degree.
Whether it's "worth it" or not is entirely up to YOU. If you have to work hard to earn the money, but you are really motivated to study there because you want the knowledge you'll gain there, then go for it. If your daddy's rich, your momma's good lookin'*, and they wanna send you to game school, then more power to ya. If the expense is just out of question because of your life situation, then all I can say is this: You can only do what's possible for you to do. Don't go around moaning about stuff you can't control. Do what you can with the cards you're dealt. That's what the rest of us do. Be a winner, not a whiner. I wrote about winning vs. whining in both article 3 and article 24.10 - it's an important concept. And there are more important words of wisdom about dealing with the limitations life has imposed upon you in article 47. And an ""is it worth it" question is pretty much the same thing as a "waste of time" question. That said, I do not recommend spending so much on your education that you'll still be paying for it twenty years down the road. Read my August 2011 column, "The High Cost of College."
*Sorry, couldn't resist - the song "Summertime" is a classic!

5a. I'm planning to go to the local community college, because that's the only one my family can afford. Will I get mocked when I show up at a game company with that pitiful little degree on my resume?
5b. I'm planning to get my degree online, because of cost and other reasons based on my current life situation. Will I get mocked when I show up at a game company with an online degree on my resume?
- No. Here, if you're worried about getting mocked by somebody, let me save you the trouble and mock you right now, for asking such a dumb question!
Ahem. Sorry.
Look. In the game of life, you have to play with the cards you're dealt. Some people are dealt aces and kings - other people get dealt less lucky cards. The secret of the game of life is to play the best game you can with the cards you have. It's up to you to do the most with the education you can manage to get. A four-year brick-and-mortar education is best, but that isn't in the cards for everyone. It says good things about you if you manage to build a spectacular portfolio with a less-than-Ivy-League education. Don't worry about appearances; focus on substance. Wherever you study, you have to apply yourself to your education, do your utmost to learn the material and build a strong portfolio. It's all up to you, baby. Nobody cares where you got your learning. You should get the best education you can, I'm not saying it doesn't matter - but then you have to use your education well, to play the game as best you can.
For further reading about this question, see my September 2007 column (scroll down after clicking that link).

6. So if I want to be a game designer, I should get a Game Design degree - that's what you said in point #1 above, right? - That isn't precisely what I said, no. In fact, in article 3 I outlined some specific classes you should take, to prepare for a career in game design - but without ever specifying what degree you should get. Hopefully, you have some other skill going for you besides a general creativity, and an ability to communicate in writing. Because most game companies don't hire novices to fill "game designer" openings, a "game design" degree might or might not get you your foot in the door. You should also have other skills or abilities that are useful to game companies - like programming or art or management or marketing or customer relations. You should certainly always use your best writing habits (good spelling, proper punctuation, correct capitalization) whenever communicating with anyone in the business world. You might get a start in Q.A. or Customer Support, or in Marketing or Production. I recently got an email from a guy who'd gotten a degree in programming. Very soon after getting a job as a programmer, his special talents as a game designer were recognized, and he was offered a promotion to game designer. That kind of stuff happens! But you have to get your foot in the door. And a "game design" degree might not be the sole key.

7. So if I just study anything I want for 4 years, I'll become a Game Designer? That's what you said in Lesson #3, right? - No, I didn't guarantee that you will become a Game Designer simply because you follow your passions (and get a 4-year degree). What I suggested is that if you follow your passions (and get a 4-year degree) that you will probably like the place where you wind up - that you will probably wind up doing a job that you're good at, and that you enjoy.

8. If I study Game Design and then someday want to change careers, will I have wasted my college years? - No, of course not. I get a lot of people worrying how "applicable" their college studies will be in life - perhaps prompted by parental fears of spending good money on a "silly videogame" education that won't get used. What would really be wasteful, in my opinion, would be to spend money on a curriculum your parents approve of (like law or medicine) only to have you drop out of it in short order because it isn't where your heart lies. If you study a subject you don't care about, then go into a career you don't care about, then your life will be miserable. So all I can say is that if you choose a major based on your passions, then you will be happy with the place in life where you eventually find yourself (hmm, I just noticed that I already wrote this in #7 above). A degree in a subject that interests you will get you jobs suited to ... guess who ... YOU.
Consider my case. I had never played a video game when I picked my college - video games didn't even exist yet. All I knew was that I wanted a creative major. Writing, drawing... I was enamored of comic books, and used to write and illustrate my own stories all the time. I'd been in theatrical productions in high school, and was interested in that too. The college I chose was affordable, not ungodly far from home, and offered majors in art, music, and theater (there wasn't anything else that fit my criteria, and that school scored highest on my decision grid). It took me two years to even pick a major once I'd begun matriculating. I finally chose Speech & Drama because the head of that department was helpful to me, I was in a lot of his theatrical productions, and stuff. I also took courses in art, radio, astronomy, scriptwriting, as well as the usual required courses.
I didn't really want a career in theater - it was just something interesting to study. It wound up getting me a job as a model maker, which led to my moving to Los Angeles, and before I knew it, I was designing electronic games. (You can read the story in Lesson 18.)
See what I mean? I took courses that were interesting to me. And they were useful to me as I found my way through life. You might take courses now, focusing on game design, then later you might discover a whole new medium - call it interactive wireless fiction - and although you hadn't majored in "interactive wireless fiction," you were perfectly suited for it because of what you'd studied, and the path you took in life.

9. I can't convince my parents that I'm serious about studying Game Design, and they don't want to pay for me to go to Game Design School. How can I convince them? - There is nothing you can SAY that will convince them. The problem is that you haven't been SHOWING them that you're serious. See what I said in the other articles about what game biz employers are looking for. They want to see that you're the kind of driven passionate person who is constantly creating, writing, or programming stuff that's related to games. It's the same thing with your parents. If all you do is come home from high school and play games, then that doesn't show them that you're passionate about working in games - that only shows them that you play games all the time. See Lesson 12 for some ideas for the kinds of home projects you ought to be doing. But like I said in Lesson 30, if you aren't already so crazy about doing your own writing, drawing, or whatever, that your family and friends are a little worried about you, then you're already doomed to be rejected by game biz employers. Work IS fun, and if those three words shock you, you've got a long way to go before you become a winner.

10. Oh my god, I just read #9 and that's me exactly! I have to apply RIGHT NOW, and my dad is reluctant to let me apply to the Game Design School. How can I show him I'm serious? - Too late. Let this be an important lesson to you. Your only option at this late date (assuming your dad is being a responsible dad and is sticking to his guns) is to go to a college that he will accept. And start acting like you're serious about wanting to work in games - rather than just acting like you just wanna play games all the time. Time to start growing up.


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