Choosing a School

By Jeff Ward [10.26.06]

One of the questions game developers receive frequently is which college or university a student should select when interested in pursuing a career in game development. And who can blame them? There are probably millions of different schools out there, with different strengths and weaknesses, not to mention the hundreds of new majors and certificates in game design, game art, game programming, 3d modeling, graphics programming, entertainment technology, media theory, and any of the other majors there may be out there related to computer games and game technology. How is a young high school (or returning college grad) to make sense of it all? This article is an attempt to address some of these questions and hopefully present some of the tools that students should seriously consider when selecting the institution where they may spend four years of their life.

I have presented this article in a few simple rules, starting with a rule that is very frequently forgotten by lots of students looking for an education, guidance councilors looking to place students in prestigious schools, and even developers looking to get trained students.

Thinking ahead.

Rule 1: There is not right college, only the right college for you.

There are a lot of things you should consider when choosing a school, especially if you are going to invest a lot of time (usually about 2 to 4 years) and money (anywhere from $30k to $120k) into a school. You should make sure you make a good decision, and this is not something other people can, or even should, help you with. This should be your decision. That said, there are a lot of things we can recommend that will help you make the right decision.

First, you should think about the type of school you want to go to, and the decision is not as simple as trade school versus "traditional" four year college or university, though this is possibly the biggest debate between developers, educators and students. However, from everything I've heard, everyone I've talked to, and from personal experience, I am now firmly of the opinion that the choice, in the long run, does not matter. You will hear arguments on both sides of the fence, from the biggest industry name to the smallest community college professor about why you should select one type of university over the other, but, generally, in the long run the choice probably won't matter.

I know you didn't want to hear that, and I know those of you that put lots of money, time, and energy into a particular type of school don't want to hear it either. But the truth of the matter is that part of what makes a good game developer is wrapped around a psychological model that revolves around a penchant for hard work, talent, and passionate dedication. Furthermore, a person with those qualities will do well regardless of which school they eventually attend.

Unless, of course, that person is completely miserable while attempting to get their education. And, believe it or not, a simple thing like learning style can make a huge difference in how happy you are at a school.

For example, when I went looking for colleges, I knew that I wanted a broader based education. I'm interested in a very wide variety of things, including percussion, religion, spirituality, ethics, practical and experimental science, fine art appreciation, theater, and marching band. I wanted a college that would encourage, even require, me to participate in these subjects, and to try new and different things. Learning lots of different things definitely matched what I wanted to accomplish in college. Going to a liberal arts school fit me and my personality.

Another student, on the other hand, although interested in just as many subjects and extra curricular activities, may not be as interested in taking them as required courses. They may want courses that are directly related to games in every subject, and may get bored in their classes otherwise. This person would be miserable at a school that required 30 credits of liberal arts and a gym class. As a result, their course work, even those classes related to games, would suffer.

So, are you going to be more successful at a school offering a broad based education, or are you going to be happier at a school that is strictly focused on your games education? Or are you somewhere in between? If you've already completed a B.S., B.A. or B.F.A. at another school, you're probably not looking to take the general education classes again right? This is the first question you have to ask yourself before even beginning to look for a college. In fact, it's the next rule of selecting a college for game development.

 Rule 2: Choose a school that fits your style of learning.

If you choose a school that fits your style of learning, you will be happier and more productive, and you will be able to absorb more of what the professors are offering. Forget what employers and your parents want for the time being, and just think where you would be happier. It's your life, after all, not any potential employer's.

If you understand the type of school you want to go to, start searching for programs in your particular field of study. However, when searching, you want to make sure to get as many schools as possible into your search, so you can make a more informed decision. Start with a large list, and whittle it down as you learn more about the schools. That brings us to Rule 3.

We all learn in different ways.

Rule 3: When searching for programs to join, do not just search for game programs.

Though game programs are becoming more and more prevalent, and better and better schools are creating some great programs, you want to make sure you start with as large a list as possible. Some great art schools with great 3D modeling and digital art programs will never come up if you do a search on "game art" or "computer art." Some great programming schools will also elude your grasp if you search just for "game programming."

Once you have a (very large) list of possible schools, then you can start to eliminate some of them based off of many criteria, including class size / school size, whether it fits your style of learning, and whether it looks like it has any majors or schools you'd be interested in. What exactly should you do to do this? Well, I'm glad you asked, because that brings us to Rule 4;

Rule 4: The rules your high school guidance councilor gave you for selecting and eliminating colleges still stand.

Don't think that just because you're going into game development, that you can disregard the whole "select two safety schools, two reach schools, and to medium schools" rule. Other rules also stand. Make sure you research potential schools fully. Visit the school. Ask professors, tour guides or department heads about all the programs you're interested in. Make sure you like the campus, that it has the facilities and extracurriculars you want, that it's in a rural or city area (depending on your preferences) and that you like the people, both the professors and your potential classmates. Sit in on some classes if you can. Go out into the middle of campus when there are lots of people wandering by. Generally absorb the atmosphere. If you have one, make sure to ask your guidance councilor about the school and its reputation. Remember that this is part of their job and they'll be able to answer many of your questions far better than any forum troll.

During this search, you're going to be asking the same questions everyone else looking for a school is going to be asking: Is this the school that will look good on a resume and get me a job right out of college? This question is usually phrased on forums as "Is this school / program any good?" That's just as vague as asking "What school should I go to?" What you're really asking is whether people in the industry have hired good people from that school, and would be willing to accept others. However, past performance is not a guarantee of future performance, and no one knows this better than game developers.

Yes, some schools may "look better" than others, but if you play your cards right, doing well at any school, along with proper networking, can look just as good as the "right school" This brings up the next rule.

Rule 5: The prestige of the school should not be the reason you go there.

Though the prestige of a school, and its programs (game development or otherwise) may help you land a job, there are a lot of other factors that are just as important. If you let prestige be the biggest or only factor, you're more likely to be miserable at the school, which will make you do poorly, which looks bad no matter what the name of the school is.

What will really stand out to employers isn't necessarily the school you went to, but the amount of additional effort you put in towards areas both inside and outside your field of study. This doesn't mean you can ignore game related side projects and development, but it does mean that if you're at a school specifically centered on game development, you should seriously think about keeping up with your trombone playing and table magic tricks. However, it also means that if you're at a school that doesn't specifically teach you game development, you need to make sure that you're always keeping up to date on new technologies and participating in some game-related side projects. Either way, the combination of work inside and outside the field of game development will be impressive.

That said, you don't want to lose sight of the big picture.

 Rule 6: Keep your eventual goals in mind.

If all you ever want to be is a programmer, then feel free to go to a school that is specifically centered on programming and only programming. If you want to do other things, make sure you get an education in those things. If you want to run your own company, you'd better make sure you take a few business classes. If you want to be a game designer, think about taking classes in creative writing, religion, media, or anything else you might find interesting.

Also, be sure to listen to the developers that inspire you or that you would one day like to work for. Many developers have spoken on this issue in the past, and their opinions are sure to offer insight into which school you should choose. Remember, though, that the decision is ultimately yours. Any advice from others should be coupled with your own experience and options in order to find the best school to match your learning style and career goals.

Finally, onto my favorite rules.

Rule 7: No matter where you go, learn all you can.

This does not mean pay attention in class (let's face it, some classes are much more boring than others), it means be alert to what's going on in the industry and educate yourself on all of it. When it comes time to network and look for a job, your potential employers will be impressed that you went the extra mile to be educated on things outside the classroom setting.

With all of this said, however, remember that college is also a time to have fun, so while doing all this hard work, remember to expand yourself socially and learn new things, whether you take classes or not. You never know when knowing how to swing dance, juggle, play jazz guitar, talk gourmet wine, or just talk up a crowd will get you the all important contact into the industry, or just a new friend. This brings me to the last, yet most important rule.

Rule 8: No matter where you go, have lots of fun.

You really are only going to be in college once (maybe twice), and there's really nothing else like it. It would be a real shame (for you, and the industry) for you to miss out on all of your potential, just because you were spending too much time doing all of your work.

Lastly, I have just a few final thoughts that I think are important. They are most easily summed up in Rule Zero, which is the overarching theme of this whole article.

Fun is subjective.

Rule Zero: Being happy at your school is paramount. If you are happy, everything else can fall into place through hard work and planning.

And, remember, you're more likely to want and be able to put in that hard work and planning if you're happy. As I said in the summary of Rule 1, you shouldn't let anyone else make this decision for you, because they will likely choose the school that's right for them, not you. That said, don't be afraid to ask people's opinions on various schools, just realize that people's learning styles are different, and some people may not like a school you'd be very happy at.

Now, hopefully, armed with this knowledge you will be able to select the school that will be best for you: one that will challenge you intellectually and socially. So what are you waiting for? Get out there, get to school, and change the industry. We're waiting for you.


Jeff Ward is a 2004 alumni of James Madison University's schools of Computer Science and Media Arts and Design. He is currently employed as an Associate Programmer at Bethesda Game Studios, and is credited for his work on The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion.

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