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  • Game Curricula: Differences in Focus

    [08.04.09]
    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • Confusing or Misleading Labeling

    You may be able to see why game designers are rarely hired straight out of school. Experience counts for a lot, and of all people on a production team the designers are most able to completely foul up a game. In most cases, the designer begins as a tester or programmer in the industry, or as a level designer. 

    Because there are relatively few jobs for graduates as designers, many game schools devote little instruction time to game design, and not much to level design (which is a subset of game design). Unfortunately, "game design" sounds much cooler than "game production" or "game development". The big problem, then, for those wanting to attend game-related curricula is that schools often accidentally or deliberately mislabel what they do, most often labeling as "game design" a curriculum that is all about programming or art.

    For example, I encountered a university recently that teaches 3D modeling, with a couple game-design-related classes. Yet they call it "game design" and claim that 3D modeling will lead to a game design job once you're in the industry. I cannot think of a single game designer who started as a 3D modeler (I'm sure there must be some). Designers tend to be people who started in QA and other ancillary parts of game production, not in art. (This particular school is in England; the problem is not confined to the United States.)

    Similarly, there are schools that say they teach "game development", but in practice focus almost entirely on game studies or on programming. The latter is especially confusing. A "developer", in the computer world, is someone who creates software, whereas a "game developer" is someone who creates games whether by programming, art, design, sound, or other means. This is why "game creator" would be a better term, to avoid the confusion with programming.

    So what is it, really?

    So how do you as a prospective student tell what's really happening? First, find descriptions of the required classes. Often this will be enough. If most of the required classes involve programming, it doesn't matter whether the school calls it "game design", it's about programming. If most of the required classes are art/3D courses, it's not game design, it's game art. If most of the classes involve studying and analyzing games rather than designing, programming, and doing art for games, then it's game studies, not game development.

    If the descriptions aren't enough -- and sometimes descriptions don't match reality -- then you'll have to try to talk to a current student. Talking with the instructors may help, too, but this depends on how much the instructors are responsible for the mislabeling of the curriculum!

    Finally, find out what the background of the instructors is. Have they made games? Look at their resumes and their Web portfolios (they have one, no?). (Few "game studies" people have actual experience of making commercial games.) If teaching game design, have they had games published commercially?

    Few schools actually teach game design on its own, without a lot of associated game production classes. In my part of the country, the only one I know of is Savannah College of Art and Design.

    ---

    Photos by John Morgan and Vincent Diamante, used under Creative Commons license.

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