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  • Industry Hopefuls: Prepare Intelligently!

    [07.07.09]
    - Lewis Pulsipher

  •  Online "education"

    Schools that claim that an online education is the equivalent of a seated-class education are blowing smoke (part of the proverbial "smoke and mirrors"). Given current technological limitations, online classes are generally the equivalent of teaching yourself from books. The interaction that gamers crave is very limited in an online class. An MIT spokesperson put it this way several years ago:

    An MIT education happens in the classroom, by interacting with other students and with faculty, not by reading some Web pages or downloading some materials, or even watching a... lecture.

    The major result of an online degree program is a piece of paper, not an education. For game industry purposes, the piece of paper is relatively unimportant. What you need is an education, however you get it. If you're going to mostly teach yourself, why bother with the obstacles and expense of going to school? In other words, why bother with an online degree? If you just need a stimulus to study, by all means try online classes. But save a lot of money and take continuing education (non-degree) online classes, such as those offered through many colleges by Ed2Go (Ed2Go doesn't offer directly -- check your local community/junior college).

    When I was an employer, I strongly discounted online degrees insofar as I had no idea who actually did the work. Most online schools and teachers simply ignore the possibility of cheating, though there are exceptions.

    Finally, there are many "degree mills" in the online world, including some that are college accredited--the accreditation people know how much money online education is worth, and money governs education in 21st century America, so many of the standards applied to seated classes are ignored as soon as a class is called "distance". At a degree mill you pay your money and you do a bit and you get a degree, but it's not good education.

    See https://www.videosift.com/video/Westwood-College-For-TERRIBLE-Game-Design for an example of the ridiculous advertising sometimes associated with online programs.

    When you learn game design, learn game design, not game production.

    Many game creation schools perpetuate the confusion between game design and game production. They call their curriculum "game design", but no one on staff has a clue about game design, and what they actually teach is programming and (perhaps) art. In large part this is because the instructors don't understand what game design actually is (never having successfully created a good, complete game).

    In this context, game design suffers from a lack of respect. "Oh, that's just kids' stuff, anyone can do/teach that." But would you choose someone who does not play an instrument to teach musical composition? Wouldn't you want the teacher to be a composer? Would you let someone who doesn't sculpt teach sculpture, or someone who doesn't paint teach painting? Then why would you have someone who not only doesn't design games, but has not been a lifelong gamer, teach game design? Yet it happens all over the country.

    Fundamentally, there's a misunderstanding that you can learn to be a game designer by memorizing facts and discussing theories and analyzing games. Game design is a hands-on occupation, and learning it should be hands-on, from start to finish, not just halfway through (until you have an electronic prototype).

    As an example, at one college the second-in-sequence "Game Design" class, taught by non-designers, requires student groups to produce five video games (using Gamemaker, a fine simple tool) in a 16 week semester. Students struggle in that short time to produce an electronic prototype, usually getting it to work a day before it's due. Students learn only the outer layer of the onion of game design, and that poorly. Hardly any "game design" is involved, and because students must go on to the next game, they miss out on the most vital part of game design, iteratively and incrementally testing and modifying the game prototype to make it worthwhile. Further, whoever is doing the programming ends up doing most of the work, and the general impression of the students is that working in groups "sucks." It is a low-quality game production class, not a game design class.

    Similarly, if you're learning game design on your own, don't get bogged down learning game production. It's widely known among designers that you much more efficiently learn game design if you start with non-electronic games (see "Pulling the Plug: In Defense of Non-Digital Teaching and Learning"). If you try to make electronic games, you'll spend your time struggling to produce a working prototype instead of learning how to design games.

    (Having said this, remember that hardly anyone is hired as a game designer, or even a level designer, right out of school. You probably need to have other skills that can get you a job in the industry. Time spent learning game production isn't wasted, it just isn't learning game design.)

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