Game design degrees

Would it surprise you to learn that game design is a difficult career to define? According to Tim Monk, senior manager of game programming at Sony, "Some people in the industry … insist that a designer never actually builds anything himself. He just calls the shots. Others in the industry insist that if you're not physically building something using a design tool, such as a level editor, then you shouldn't call yourself a designer at all." Within the industry, Monk says, the responsibilities under the title "game designer" can vary quite a bit from position to position.

This can make the process seem intimidating for anyone wondering how to become a game designer. But it's far from impossible, and the degree programs out there can help prepare you for whichever part of the industry is most appealing to you -- or even help you figure out what interests you. Luckily, tackling the varying duties of the position can require a similarly varied skill set, which means that you also have time to figure it out as get farther into a game design degree program. Here's a list of skills that successful game designers tend to possess, according to the Occupational Information Network:

  • Computer programming
  • Critical thinking
  • Fluency of ideas
  • Creativity
  • Artistic ability
  • Time management
  • Professional communication
  • Team collaboration

The comprehensive approach of most game design programs works to train students for the wide range of eventualities possible in the industry. Whether it's world-building, level design and construction, preparing design documents, creating core features, developing game play mechanics, programming animation assets or managing whole projects, game design majors in the right degree program can learn it.

Why get a degree?

Q&A with a game designer

We spoke to Elena Bertozzi, professor of digital game design and development at Quinnipiac University, about her game design degree and her experience teaching the craft to students.

1. Why did you decide to become a game designer?
I have always loved play and games and think that there is a strong link between play and intelligence. Building games is a complex and challenging activity and includes fun -- which not many other careers do.

2. What's the most important thing you learned in your degree program?
How difficult it is to actually design a fun game. Digital games require a lot of programming knowledge so I had to learn to program as well as study games and how to improve them.

3. How much education did you have before getting your first game design job?
I started designing games in my first master's degree program.

4. Why would you encourage someone interested in game design to get an education?
We have played games since we were old enough to do so, but learning how to critically analyze them and then build them is difficult to do on your own.

5. What's the best thing about your job?
I have new challenges every day and "must" play as many new games as possible to keep up with changes in the industry.

6. What advice would you give someone who's just starting out on the path to a career in game design?
Play many different kinds of games, not just the ones you like the best. Learn programming.

Self-taught programmers and artists may be able to launch their careers without a degree, but there are a few advantages to the university process that those without degrees may not enjoy. The people you meet in school can be great way to get a head start on building a professional network, for example, and there are some jobs in the industry that require at least a bachelor's degree in game design, computer programming, animation, information systems or another field. Game design degrees may also let you use your acquired technical knowledge and multimedia skills to build a portfolio, which can be a significant asset in the job search.

What game design degrees are there?

Aspiring game designers can pursue formal training at various academic levels, depending on the intensity of study they're looking for and the amount of previous education that they have.

Associate degrees

In addition to teaching common programming languages like Java and C++, associate degrees in game design typically take students through fundamental concepts such as:

  • Programming logic
  • Game engine architecture
  • 2-D and 3-D modeling
  • Basic artificial intelligence (AI) development.

Large gaming companies may employ dozens or hundreds of programmers, level artists, environment designers and other specialized workers, and a game design associate degree may help you gain the sort of concentrated skill necessary for entry-level positions on teams like these. Graduates with associate degrees can also typically transfer their credits and shorten the time necessary to earn a bachelor's degree, as long as their associate education was completed at an accredited institution.

Bachelor's degrees

Game design degrees at the bachelor's level are offered variously as Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.S.) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degrees, depending on the aspects of the industry that they make their primary focus. Degrees that concentrate on animation, character modeling, storytelling and sound design are likely to be offered on a B.A. or B.F.A. track, while those that spend more time on programming languages, database design, game logic, AI and software development concepts may lead to a B.S. degree.

Many of the subjects studied by game design majors at this level may also be covered in associate programs, but the longer duration of a bachelor's degree plan tends to allow deeper exploration of the concepts than a two-year program allows. Many jobs in the industry may require at least a bachelor's degree, as well, so students who continue to this level tend to have more options on the job market.

Master's degrees

Graduate degrees in game design break down similarly to those at the bachelor's level, with Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.) and Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) degrees each available. The concepts explored at the master's level can be complex, but students seeking a deep understanding of the building blocks of game design, the interactive entertainment industry or the larger social context of gaming can often find what they're looking for at this level.

Also, if you're planning to go into research, education or academic theory as a profession, graduate level degrees are usually required. Students who want to conduct extensive independent research projects at the cutting edge of the field may need to move beyond the master's degree to the postgraduate level and earn a Ph.D. in computer science, sociology, multimedia design or whatever discipline most closely relates to the research work they hope to do.

What schools offer game design degrees?

Game design degrees are growing in popularity all over the country, and numerous traditional and online colleges are beginning to offer dedicated plans of study for aspiring game designers and programmers. Here's a short list of options that prospective game design majors can pursue:

  • New England Institute of Technology offers a bachelor's degree in video game design technology, as well as a related bachelor's in game development and simulation programming.
  • Southern New Hampshire University educates students in all aspects of game design, offering bachelor's as well as master's degrees in artistic as well as technical elements of the field.
  • New York University recently began offering M.F.A. and B.F.A degrees in game design, and students across disciplines have the opportunity to supplement their degree with a game design minor.
  • Rochester Institute of Technology was named in the top 10 game design schools by the Princeton Review and features a bachelor's, a master's and an undergraduate minor in game design.

These schools are just examples, however, and there are many programs available across the country. Some degrees in the field are strictly campus-based, but students who don't have the time or money available to commit to a traditional program can potentially find degree plans conducted mostly or fully online. A good first step, beyond checking out one of the examples above, is to start exploring game design schools either in your area or online to see what program fits your educational and professional goals, as well as your budget.

1. Academy of Art University, http://www.academyart.edu/academics/game-development/graduate-degrees
2. The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, http://www.aionline.edu/game-art-design-degree/courses/
3. Austin Community College, http://www.viscom.austincc.edu/degrees/associate/game-design
4. Bramson ORT College, http://www.bramsonort.edu/Academics/AssociateDegrees/GameDesign.html
5. Game Design Graduate Program, George Mason University, http://game.gmu.edu/grad.html
6. New England Institute of Technology, http://www.neit.edu/Programs/Associate-Degree-Programs/Information-Technology/Video-Game-Design-Technology
7. Game Design BFA, New York University, http://gamecenter.nyu.edu/academics/game-design-bfa/
8. Video Game Designers, Occupational Information Network, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/15-1199.11
9. Rochester Institute of Technology, http://grad.rit.edu/Masters-Degree/Game-Design-and-Development
10. Southern New Hampshire University, http://www.snhu.edu/online-degrees/undergraduate-degrees/computer-information-technology-bachelors-online/game-design-and-development.asp
11. The Technical College of New England, http://www.neit.edu/Programs/Bachelors-Degree-Programs/Game-Development-Simulation-Programming

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