The discussion in the media about game degrees generates more heat than light, creating doubt and misconceptions. I will look at 10 such misconceptions from my experience with delivering a programming-focused game degree. Though I am writing from a U.K. perspective, the issues are relevant elsewhere.
1. Game degrees are easy -- students play games all day!
This first myth is an unfortunate favorite of the media; it's an obvious and easy target. The reality is that game development students are kept too busy on assignments to spend much time playing games.
Computer game development has in recent years become a serious academic discipline with its own journals and conferences. Furthermore, games push other disciplines, such as computer science, to their limits. For example, the processors in the current generation of consoles make some very radical architectural decisions. Also, modern graphics processors have found a new relevance in speeding up scientific computing applications.
As such game students should find no shortage of challenge.
2. There are few jobs in the game industry.
The U.K. is a good counterexample to this myth. The game development industry in the U.K. is larger in value than the film industry and employs around 10,000 people. It is more accurate to say that although there are jobs in the game industry, there is also a lot of competition.
Game jobs are perceived as glamorous and require a high-level of skill and ability to enter. Finding employment in the game industry is challenging, but this applies across other graduate destinations and is not unique to games (though it is tougher than most). For example, applicant-to-places ratios for mainstream IT industry graduate schemes can exceed 80:1 in the U.K. The key for potential students is to choose a course that allows them to develop to be one of those high-quality graduates.
3. Game companies prefer graduates from ‘traditional' disciplines ...
One of claims I hear is that game companies take the best graduates from "traditional" computer science, mathematics, or physics degrees and ignore the game graduates. The reality is that computer game companies will take the most technically talented graduates, but as a tiebreak are only too happy to favor the best game graduates as they can hit the ground running and can show a portfolio of immediately useful skills.
4. ... and no one else will want to employ games graduates!
Are there jobs for people with computer game degrees, outside the industry? Our experience at City University London is that game graduates find it as easy to find employment as our other computing graduates. There are two reasons for this.
First, many graduate jobs are available to students of any discipline. Employers value the intellectual skills of good graduates, no matter what the area of study.
Second, many of the topics covered in a game degree are relevant to other industries. Consider a computer science-focused game degree. These degrees are programming-intensive and provide coverage of C++ and software engineering methods that are needed in the mainstream IT industry. Other applications of a technically-focused game degree include simulation, visualization, and scientific computing. This argument also applies to game degrees of a creative nature. For example, skills learned in a game art and animation degree can be transferred to the mainstream animation industry.
5. All you'll do is testing.
Testing used to be an entry-level position before game companies employed graduates directly into development roles (it still can be a route for producers). It is true that graduates can find themselves in this role as a placement or intern when the company is deciding whether to continue the relationship with the employee. Similar arrangements exist elsewhere in the creative industries (for example, in film), so this is not unusual. The key issue is that it is your chance to get noticed and it needs to be viewed as such. In this respect, the future is in your hands.
6. You can learn on the job, no degree required.
The claim is that it is better to get straight into a game studio and learn on the job -- this is not an option any more. Very few people are able to get technical roles in game development without a degree, and those that do will have worked much harder independently to get their position. There are a few instances when people have been employed by games companies then put through a degree by their employer, but this is arguably harder than taking a degree by the conventional route.
The game industry, like other creative industries, is becoming increasingly graduate in nature. In the U.K., 40 percent of those employed in the game industry have undergraduate degrees, and 29 percent have a masters or other higher degree, according to the U.K. organization Skillset. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that "graduateness" is something that the game industry values. Given the complexity of modern game development, graduates who are agile and are creative problem solvers are thus huge assets to any game development project.
7. Your job will be outsourced to India, China, or (insert country of current economic paranoia here).
This threat is consistently overstated. Though outsourcing does exist, its role has not put a damper on a graduate's ability to get or keep a job in game development.
Consider the U.K. mainstream IT industry as an example: The recent move to off-shoring accounted for no more than 2 percent of the IT workforce. This was less than the number of new IT positions created in that period. The overall effect was to reduce the proportion of routine, lower-skill IT roles and replace them with more interesting and better-paid high-skill IT positions. In short, it is a threat confined to low-skill roles of which there are few in the game industry.
Furthermore, there are reasons specific to the game industry that makes this less likely for game programmers. Effective game-making requires coders and engineers to be integrated in tight co-located teams with designers, animators, artists, and the rest of the project team. Programming roles could not be off-shored without a marked drop in effectiveness.
8. Game programming degrees are more highly valued than game design degrees (or vice versa).
The programming-focused and design- or animation-focused degrees are aimed at distinct roles in the game industry. The value that these degrees provide depends on your interests (you will get more out of studying something you're interested in) and the role that you wish to pursue after graduation.
9. Game programming degrees produce hackers and nerds.
The cliché of the lone teenage coder in his bedroom refuses to die, yet it falls down in two respects.
First, like other creative industries, game development is a social activity. It invariably occurs in teams with mixed skills. The confusion here is one of assuming that people who are passionate about something that others are not are somehow lacking in social skills. Similar generational misconceptions arise from social networking among students.
The charge of ad hoc coding practices (hacking) may have some historical basis. In its infancy, the game industry arose from self-taught developers who often worked as individuals. Today game development is an activity costing potentially millions of pounds or dollars, and thus requires a disciplined engineering approach akin to any other large-scale software project. Disciplined software development is a core skill for mainstream IT professionals that some game graduates become. Universities recognize this in their curricular. For example at City University London, software engineering is taught to all first-year computing students, and in later years game technology students take team projects along with students in more mainstream computing courses.
10. Universities are only in it for the money!
Universities have been accused of offering game degrees as a cynical ploy to make money (usually throwing in the employment myths above for good measure). Of course the media tends to remain silent over "traditional" degrees that are non-vocational. Again, this assumes that responding to student interest is a bad thing.
In reality, the driver is that games provide an excellent platform to teach difficult technical issues in computer science to motivated students. The projects I see from game students at City University London often exhibit a high degree of technical accomplishment that make them a joy to supervise and mark. A similar rationale exists for design and animation focused game degrees - students can do great things when they are inspired.
To a Degree
Most misconceptions about game degrees arise from ignorance. This should not put off anyone who is passionate about studying for a game degree. Those who have the drive, commitment, and skill can succeed.
The key is to be realistic as to what a degree can provide. It is not a passport into a career. Instead it is an opportunity for you to develop your abilities to allow you to impress future employers and secure your choice of career.
The most important reason why anyone should take any degree is interest. Employers in any sector want well-developed graduates. The best way to achieve this is to take a degree that will give you the challenge and interest for you to develop to your full potential.
Dr. Andrew Tuson is the head of the Department of Computing at City University London . Originally educated as a chemist (Oxford), he then changed direction to undertake research in artificial intelligence and studied for an MSc and a PhD at Edinburgh University's former AI department. Apart from helping to set up City's BSc (Hons) Computer Science with Games Technology and MSc Computer Games Technology degrees, he currently teaches systems architecture and artificial intelligence. He is a professional member of the British Computer Society and a member of its careers working group.