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  • Identifying a Good Game School

    [03.30.10]
    - Ian Schreiber and Lewis Pulsipher

  • Accreditation

    Question to ask: Is the school accredited as a college, as a trade school, or as something else?

    What to look for: You can buy "degrees" from European schools with prestigious-sounding names, but what are they worth? Accreditation is what determines whether a degree is taken seriously by others. A school must meet standards in finance, health, faculty credentials, facilities, administrative processes, and more to achieve accreditation. If the school is accredited as a college, your degree will "count" outside the game industry, and you'll be able to go on to graduate school if you choose.

    What to do: If you're only interested in school as a means to learn skills and attitudes you need in the game industry, accreditation is irrelevant. However, a lack of accreditation means that the school has not had an independent review of its curriculum, so the chances are higher that the skills and attitudes you learn from the school will not be relevant to the game industry.

    What to watch out for: Almost every school will say "we're accredited." Accreditation is voluntary and private, not government-based. But some accreditation bodies are recognized as the standard for colleges (and secondary schools). Others may be fly-by-night outfits. Anyone can set up an accreditation organization, after all.

    It's also important to understand that there are different kinds of accreditation. Not every school that offers a degree is accredited, and a trade school accreditation is very different from a college accreditation. Accreditation matters when you see a job that "requires bachelor's degree," because this usually means "bachelor's degree from a college accredited school."

    For more about this topic see Industry Hopefuls: Prepare Intelligently.

    Quality of Teaching

    "A university is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students." John Ciardi

    "A teacher is never a giver of truth - he is a guide, a pointer to the truth that each student must find for himself. A good teacher is merely a catalyst." Martial arts quote

     Question to ask: Are the teachers good teachers?

    What to look for: Teachers who like to interact with students, and who care about students individually.

    What to do: Find out what the student to instructor ratio is (the more instructors the better). What is the average class size (the smaller the better, of course)? Talk with instructors if you can. If there are official Web sites at the school that address students, what seems to be the attitude toward the student? Most important is to talk with current students.

    Most schools have faculty-course evaluations (these go by many different names) that students fill out anonymously for each class that they take. A few schools publish this information publicly, or will give it to you if you ask. There are also independent websites students can go to, like ratemyprofessor, to rate the classes they have taken. While these evaluations are not always the most unbiased (does a student hate the professor because the professor is bad, or because the student was lazy and received a failing grade as a result?), in aggregate they can give you some idea of whether students enjoy their classes and feel they are worthwhile.

    What to watch out for: Does the school offer lots of online classes? Do they teach classes that clearly ought to be "hands on," online? This could be a sign that the school is experimenting with modern methods of teaching, or it could mean that the school is trying to cut costs by reducing the use of physical classroom space. What percentage of their classes are taught by grad students? Some grad students want to be teachers. Most don't. What percentage is taught by adjuncts? Adjuncts may be very good, but many exceptionally good adjuncts want to become full time and ultimately do. Does the school hire recent graduates to teach? Although those people may be full of enthusiasm, they won't know much about teaching, nor will they likely have relevant work experience. The higher these numbers are, the lower the quality of instruction is likely to be.

    Does the school emphasize the research experience of their professors and their school? Then those professors are likely to be less interested in teaching and more interested in research, because that's where they keep their jobs. At some universities the "publish or perish" syndrome means perhaps 70% of the instructor's "credit" or compensation comes from research, so teaching is definitely secondary and suffers for it.

    Ideally, almost all classes will be taught by full time instructors.

    Are the instructors teaching games because they really like games, or because they were forced to by their department?

    Schools more and more are going to the "cheap labor" model of instruction, using graduate assistants and adjunct faculty, both far less expensive than full-time teachers.

    We'd say that of the professional game developers we've worked with, somewhere around 90% of them have a passion for their work and are more than willing to put some extra time in if it'll improve their project, or if it'll give them a chance to improve their own skills and hone their craft.

    Teaching is different. Of all the college teachers we've met, maybe 10% are passionate about teaching, so very few are going to willingly put in the extra time unless forced at gunpoint. And the thing is, with both teaching and game development, the quality of the final product is roughly proportional to the amount of work you put in.

    Ultimately, though, the problem is all the teachers who don't want to be teachers (or don't want to be game teachers). The fun in teaching comes from talking with the students; if the teachers don't like talking with students, or if they don't like students despite so many of the students being screwballs and their own worst enemies, you probably won't like them as teachers.

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