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  • Schooling Game Programmers: Specialized Degrees vs. Computer Science

    [12.11.07]
    - Marie Ferrer
  •  To become a programmer in the video game industry, there are two major educational paths: earning a computer science degree from a traditional university and earning a degree from a game-specific school. While computer science programs at traditional four-year universities remains highly regarded, game-specific programs at places like DigiPen Institute of Technology, Full Sail Real World Education, or The Guild Hall at Southern Methodist University are growing, both in their popularity and in their credibility.

    When choosing between these two types of programs, students should consider their own learning styles and preferences, future and short-term goals, cost, and greater academic plan. Both academic routes can get you a job in the game industry, but what you'll have to do to get there will vary.

    Advantages of a Conventional Computer Science Department
    The biggest advantage of enrolling in a conventional computer science program is that it's offered at almost all universities and colleges. Students can choose between many different places to study and aren't limited to only a few schools. Although the program requirements vary from school to school, the core of the curriculum is typically a solid sequence of computer science theory.

    Another advantage of a computer science degree program is that, at the undergraduate level, it does not focus solely on each student's area of concentration, but rather requires students to study a range of topics, both within their field and outside it. "Gen eds" (general education, or courses required for graduation) typically include science, math, foreign language, literature and composition, and history. With a wide array of courses, a student receives a well-rounded education.

    Some universities offer degree programs that differ slightly. At Carnegie Mellon University, for example, the computer science program includes a required minor in a second subject. Upper division courses in math and physics can be added to complete the minor, which would benefit a potential game programmer immensely.

    If a university's curriculum doesn't include game programming per se, students often have the opportunity to work on games if they so choose, perhaps to fulfill a project, or perhaps as independent study. Students might also choose to take related courses, such as computer graphics, artificial intelligence, and human-computer interaction, as they all relate directly to game programming.

    While computer science curricula include a great deal of theory, students are usually given opportunities to apply that knowledge. Lab sessions, for example, are a typical requirement of computing courses. Some schools also offer co-operative work placement terms where the student spends a few semesters working at a company and the rest of the time attending classes. Summer internships are another way students can gain valuable hands-on experience. Furthermore, undergraduate students who are interested in research are generally well supported at universities that have a graduate school, where professors and graduate students are required to conduct research, sometimes with funding for undergraduate assistants.

    Four-year university proponents claim that a more conventional education is more likely to equip students with broader knowledge and life skills that can be applied to different work settings, rather than just game development. While not all game-specific schools teach so narrowly as to rule out other career opportunities, traditional university graduates certainly have the advantage of not having to explain themselves if they wind up working in a field other than game development.

    Graduates leave university with not only a higher education, but also certain soft skills, such as critical thinking and analysis. Small studios that tend to hire university graduates over game school graduates usually do so because of these more transferable skills. There is a difference, they might argue, between someone who has churned out code for two years and someone who has studied computer
    science for four.

    Universities remain highly respected institutions because of their long-standing reputation. Carnegie Mellon University, for example, founded one of the first computer science departments back in 1965. Since then, it has become a world leader in research and education, and its commitment to research translates into hiring and keeping top-rate professors, thus keeping strong its high regard.

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