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The Experience Experience

Originally appeared in "The Games Game," a monthly column on The IGDA website was massively redesigned in 2013, making old columns hard to find, so select columns are now being reposted here on an as-needed basis. This article appeared in October, 2006.

Dear Tom,
I'm a guy who has more experience than most - I've been doing my own games since I was 12. I designed my own engine, I wrote my own game designs, I've taken courses in several computer languages. I have lots of experience making class projects of various types (not all games). High school and college gave me a lot of experience at using a lot of tools and even several operating systems.
Yet despite all that (clearly described in my resume and my cover letter), every time I have a phone interview or in-person interview, I'm told that I don't have any experience. Not "not enough experience," mind you -- "no experience at all" is what I'm told I have!
What on earth is going on here? I have experience up the wazoo, but when I walk into a game company it's like I'm in another country, where words mean different things!
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, "experience" means: "Active participation in events or activities, leading to the accumulation of knowledge or skill: ... The knowledge or skill so derived. ... An event or a series of events participated in or lived through. The totality of such events in the past of an individual or group."
And that's what I have, in spades. So what on earth are the game hirers talking about when they say I have "no experience"?
Befuddled in Berkeley


Dear Befuddled,
It's very simple, really. To a game hirer, what you have is "education" and "knowledge" and "practice." To a hirer, "experience" is shorthand for "work experience." When a hirer advertises looking for someone with "experience," they mean they want someone who has held a paid full-time job in the game industry for X years.
I assume that your resume touts your knowledge of programs, operating systems, etc. as "experience," when those should instead be listed under "Programs, Environments, Tools, Languages." Re-write your resume without referring to your class subjects and projects as "experience," and that should work better for you.
I assume also that you've been applying for jobs that are above your level. Just apply for entry-level positions and you should be able to get your break.
Good luck!

Think of "experience" as equating with "credits" (your name listed as contributor in a published game). Whether or not credits in indie games count as "experience" is a gray area. If the indie game was published on a viable platform (the iTunes store, Facebook, etc.) and was reviewed by game magazine reviewers and later picked up by a game publisher, then the work you did on that indie game looks good on your résumé -- and the work you did on that indie game would probably count as "experience," even if you were never paid a wage for it. If you worked without pay on an indie game that was never finished, that's not "experience" to a game hirer. If you worked without pay on an indie game that was finished and posted on an obscure website and nobody ever heard of it, that also is probably not going to be regarded as "experience" by a game hirer. If you worked for pay on a game that was cancelled and never released, that might arguably count as "experience" -- but it doesn't count for much.
If you worked solo on several games after graduation, that doesn't count as "experience" -- it mainly counts as "portfolio building" or self-teaching (continuing the learning, post-graduation).
The main point of this article is that you have to be mindful of what the word "experience" means to hirers, regardless of what it might mean to you. Don't use the word lightly or extravagantly, and don't try to bend the word's meaning to suit your own purposes.

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© 2006, 2013 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.

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