Five Common Mistakes In Choosing Masters Programs For Video Games

By David McClure [07.06.10]

 When selecting or taking part in a university Masters program, it is quite normal to come across a number of problems.

This article summarizes a number of common problems, with the intention of providing the reader with information to help avoid them. Most of these problems are common to all Masters study, but the nuances of some of them are peculiar to the study of games, game design and games analysis.

Mistake 1. Choosing The Wrong Course

Given that the study of games is so young compared to other academic disciplines, it is comparatively easy to choose an unsuitable course. Choosing the wrong course is, of course, a large error that is difficult to rectify in an entirely satisfying way. If the correct precautions are taken beforehand, then it is possible to minimize the chances of such a situation occurring. By answering the questions below, you are likely to find yourself on the right path to choosing the best course for you.

What Is Your Desired Outcome?

When researching courses, always keep in mind the reason why you intend to take the course. Broadly speaking, these reasons will come under one of four categories:

It is important to choose the course which is most likely to help you achieve the desired result. Of course, a combination of any number of these reasons may well drive your desire to continue your education. Many courses, no doubt are able to cater to all four reasons. What is important is to decide the order of your priorities before you begin to look for a course, and to then stick to these priorities when comparing courses. If you allow yourself to be swayed by certain appealing aspects of a course and overlook the reason why you intended to take it in the first place, then you are likely to make a sub-optimal decision.

Who Are The Academics?

The next step is to contact the academics who are involved in prospective courses. They will be well placed to advise you regarding important factors, such as the employment rate after the course, your suitability as an applicant and the background of previous students. The academics are an important part of any university course and should be researched as far as possible.

It is a good idea, in particular, to research the areas various key personnel have studied, the approaches they have taken in their research and their background prior to their employment in an academic context. The various aspects of the academics that teach a course will both shape the delivery of the content and, potentially, add value outside of the classroom. For example, if you have a particular desire to work on games aimed at mobile platforms, then a professor with a wealth of experience in this area will be able to advise you more ably than one who does not know the difference between 3G and GPS.

In order to gauge academics, it may initially seem useful to consult websites such as RateMyProfessor.com or to contact former students of the course. However, unless there are a large number of opinions available, it is unlikely you will be able to draw upon such sources in any useful way. If you are able to acquire and read a number of texts from each potential academic, then this may stand you in good stead to make a decision about them.

For example, if the academics involved in the course support their views by using sources diametrically opposed to what you believe is acceptable, accurate evidence, this is a potential source of friction, which may result in you losing marks. To give an example, if you distrust and disbelieve those who are considered by some as 'colonists' to the field, then there is little point studying under them. You will be likely to refuse their ability to judge work meaningfully and objectively, resulting in you missing a good deal of useful advice. It is eminently reasonable to include such considerations when making a decision.

At this stage it is also important to find out how often you will see various staff members, for how long and in what context. This will prevent you from being disappointed by a lack of contact time with full blown academics, compared to the amount of time spent with PhD students. This may also prevent you from being dismayed by the absence of a modern day sage, whose name is nonetheless plastered over promotional materials.

What Is The Course Comprised Of?

Although the necessity of finding out about the content of the course is fairly self-explanatory, it is still incredibly important to make sure that it conforms to certain points. The content of the course should lead to your desired outcome. If you already have a grounding in games design and want to take a class that increases your knowledge in this area, then what is essentially a conversion course is unlikely to be of much use.

Likewise, if you have never studied computer programming in your life, it is unreasonable to expect that you will be able to prosper in a course entitled MSc Computer Science for Games. If you feel that undue weight is given to areas of study that are irrelevant to your desired outcome, then the course is probably not for you. This requires some fairly hard self-examination; although you might enjoy writing essays about games, will this be more likely to lead you into employment than a semester spent on a less pleasurable activity?

You Should Expect Answers

When writing to academics and course administrators, there is nothing wrong with expecting them to answer any and all reasonable questions. Refusal to answer questions and attempts to equivocate should be considered as warning flags. If the correspondent is unwilling to provide you with help and accurate information at this point, when they are trying to persuade you that taking the course is a good idea, consider how they are likely to act once you are signed up. Taking on a Masters course is likely to prove rather expensive, so any decent person should want to make sure that you take the decision on a good basis.


Mistake 2. Making Insufficient Preparations

Like any commitment of time and resources, undertaking a Masters degree is, to some extent, a gamble. However, as with all forms of gambling, by preparing properly and making decisions with enough forethought, it is possible to increase the likelihood of success. Before the course begins, you should make certain preparations so that you are more likely to, as it were, win big.

Consider Costs

Do you have the required capital available to give yourself a good chance of success? It is important to make sure that you do not place yourself in a difficult financial position that results in lower grades, or an unsuccessful outcome. If you cannot afford to take a course at the current time, it may well be sensible to work for another year and save as much money as you can so that if you take the course the next year, you are likely to achieve a higher level of success.

When looking at the cost of a course, you need to include not only the fee payable to the university, but also the following: living expenses; the price of any necessary equipment, books and software; transport costs; lost earnings. If possible, it is prudent to include a small contingency fund in your plans, so as to mitigate unforeseen problems. Once your total costs are tallied, you should compare them to the value of the outcome. You should also consider what other options might be possible with this sum of money.

Read In Advance

During the period between your signing up to the course and the course commencing, you should read around the course as much as possible. What is important at this point is to focus your reading so that it will strengthen your weaker areas, rather than reinforcing your strong points. Where a reading list for individual classes or general topics is available, you should consider this a starting point. However, such a reading list will, more likely than not, be based in a broad approach to the entire subject matter of the course. If you are entirely new to the study of games, this may well be useful for you.

If you have already read many of the classic texts on play and games, it probably will not be. Unfortunately, none of your prospective tutors are likely to draw up personalised reading lists for you, so you will have to do it for yourself. By using your knowledge of the course content and the academics involved in teaching it, you should be able to come to some sort of conclusion as to which areas you are weak in. You can then act to prevent these weaknesses from being your downfall, a task that will be much easier at this stage than after the course starts.

Mistake 3. Failing To Communicate Properly

Of the problems that occur during the course, many are easily solved by dialogue with academics and classmates. When people work together, few problems are truly insurmountable. However, without a conscious effort on your part to ensure a good level of communication, such cooperation and assistance is unlikely. Maintain good communication links as far as possible.

Flag-Up Problems Immediately

At some point during the course, a problem will occur. Regardless of the nature of the problem, you should immediately notify the academic responsible for that area of your work. This may seem a somewhat dramatic approach to problems, but it is actually a sensible and reasonable way to proceed. You should tell your supervisor that a problem has occurred but that you intend to solve it by following a certain path. They may then offer advice, and either way the problem is likely to be solved without any further trouble.

However, should the problem persist, to the point that the quality of your work is affected, they will be able to take some steps to prevent these problems from getting further out of hand. Suppose you are involved in group work, and one fellow refuses to do any work at all. No doubt, he has his reasons. If you raise this problem with an academic as soon as it appears, then they will be able to help solve it. If, however, you wait until you submit the work, then the academic will be unable to do anything and he will have profited from you working on his behalf. The cost of bringing problems up is negligible, whereas the cost of solving problems that have been left to fester is often made exponentially more severe over time.

The Problem Of The Ideal Reader

When writing, it is often considered good practice to aim at the ideal reader. This is often thought of as an intelligent, educated person with a reasonable level of general knowledge and culture. If you explain terms unnecessarily, then this reader will rapidly tire of the patronizing nature of the text. If you leap into jargon filled paragraphs referencing obscure notions, then this reader will be dismayed and confused. This simple concept is extremely useful to bear in mind when writing.

Unfortunately, in practice, each person's idea of what constitutes the ideal reader is different. There is a real risk that you may take uncommon interests of your own and incorrectly assume that other people share them. What may seem to be common knowledge to you may well not be. One technique that is often incorrectly assumed to be likely to prevent such a problem arising, is to ask your friends to read through your text before you submit it. However, there is a reasonable chance your friends share your interests, and thus this uncommon knowledge. Likewise, a high profile event or exhibition related to the subject is not a sufficient basis to assume knowledge on the part of your audience. If your audience has no interest in the field, then they are unlikely to have come across this information or paid attention to it. So, to some extent, it is better to assume ignorance of knowledge than possession of it.

There is a solution to this problem, at least for work submitted during your studies, which is to consider the academics involved in the course as the model of your ideal reader. They are, after all, your target audience when submitting work. Such an approach is perhaps the best way to approach a bad situation. If you have properly researched these academics then you may be able to predict to some extent their knowledge on various subjects. Even so, in this case it is probably better to be cautious than to be bold.

 

Mistake 4. Misunderstanding What Is Expected Of You

It is quite easy at times to misunderstand what is expected of you, given the terse nature of the briefs that are given for various projects. Of course, as recommended in the previous section, you should contact an academic should you wish for a point to be clarified. A misunderstanding of what is expected of you may well extend beyond individual projects, leading to a catalogue of errors, and so it is important at all times to not lose sight of what you are supposed to be doing and how you are expected to do it.

Briefs Are Relative

Although a brief does lay down a minimum set of rules, it should be interpreted in terms of your own strengths and weaknesses. Take, for example, a 6,000 word self-devised essay. If you know that you tend to verbosity when writing, then it is not a very good idea to set yourself briefs that will require you to cover large scale topics with broad strokes. Likewise, if you always struggle to make up the word count when writing an essay, you should probably set yourself a fairly large topic so that the amount of exposition required reduces the amount of space you have to fill with your own ideas.

There is no shame in sticking to what you are good at. If you want to experiment you can always do so in a risk-free manner outside of your course. Meanwhile, you can stick to techniques you already understand and free up time. This allows you to either polish your work and increase your grade or to use the time on another project, perhaps one with which you are less experienced. Of course, you must also stick to the brief. If you have been asked to submit a general design document then there is little point in submitting a technical design document, as your work will not be rewarded commensurately to your efforts.

"Only" A Masters

Although the program is likely to involve a lot of effort and expenditure on your part, you must remember that it is only a Masters level program. You are not expected to revolutionize the field, nor to add to the body of human knowledge. In many respects, if you attempt to do something special that goes beyond the level the course is aimed at, then you will be setting yourself up for imminent failure. The rewards of proceeding in such a manner may well be outweighed by the risks.

In terms of effort-to-reward ratios, it is probably more productive to go over old terrain than to break new new ground. There is no sense in stretching yourself further than necessary when there is no reward for it. For example, imagine you are basing a piece of work on a survey. You may think that a survey of twenty people is meaningless. In terms of what is considered good practice in experimentation, you would be correct to think this. However, should your supervisor propose this number of subjects, then there is no point in going to extra effort to secure a larger sample, as your rewards will not increase proportionately to your efforts.

Particular notice should be given to the concept of originality. Many students on Masters courses incorrectly assume that originality is important. In fact, originality only becomes a necessary component of university work at doctorate level. It is certainly a nicety for a piece of work to be original, but it is not necessity. It is generally a better idea to submit a well rounded, polished and unoriginal idea than an original idea that is flawed or is not fully realized.

Mistake 5. Losing Sight Of The Bigger Picture

It is incredibly easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, to lose sight of the outcome you are aiming for and to place too much importance on the course in the grand scheme of things. Most Masters degrees last for one year, after which you will want to achieve your intended outcome. However, the Masters program is likely to be only one step on the path to this outcome. It is up to you to take the rest of the steps required to reach your goal.

Take On Other Projects

If all you do during the course of your Masters is to work on the projects set for you by your tutors, then ultimately you will have wasted a good part of the year. It is important to motivate yourself to take on projects and to set goals to achieve outside of the course. If you do not, how will you stand out in a competitive job market? You should use the time that you are at university as productively as possible, learning technical skills that you lack and completing portfolio projects that you can show to potential employers.

Collaborate With Others

In many respects, the most valuable part of your Masters is the exposure and introduction to other students who are likely to be motivated by similar goals. In most workplaces, you will be expected to work with others and to be able to collaborate effectively. If you take the opportunity to get to know other students and to work with them then you can mutually benefit from improving your experience of working in groups.

Such collaborations are also likely to prove much more productive than those that form an official section of the course, as you are able to avoid working with anyone who is lazy or incompetent. You can also band with other students to good effect in order to collectively bargain for reductions in the price of software. If there is one thing to ensure that you do during your Masters program, it is to voluntarily collaborate with your fellow students.

To conclude, although there are a number of mistakes that are commonly made during the course of a Masters program, they are all able to be avoided by the application of a little common sense. Hopefully this guide will smooth your progress and prevent you from becoming ensnared by easily avoidable errors.

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