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  • Teaching Game Design: Problems in Educating the Next Generation

    [07.15.09]
    - Michael Prinke

  • Approaches to Teaching Game Design

    The four great challenges of educating game design, then, are as follows: first, instructors are challenged to prepare students of a bewildering variety of backgrounds and interests for an industry with no production standards and wild variance in job descriptions, expectations, and design philosophies. Second, instructors are challenged to work around students' expectations and present a curriculum that satisfies them. Third, they must do this within budgetary constraints. Fourth and finally, they must instruct students in a field that, like the rest of the entertainment industry, may or may not be taken seriously by either other educators or the public alike.

    Several approaches have been outlined for dealing with these challenges. Ian Bogost and associates suggest that the two major forms of teaching games are "production" programs and "games studies" programs; a curriculum based on developing practical skills versus one based primarily in social science-related research revolving around games as the main object of study.

    Bogost highlights one as being more associated with trade and art schools and one as being more associated with universities and more traditional academia. However, the most successful and well-known universities in game design -- MSU, RIT, USC, and Bogost's own program at Georgia Tech, to name a few -- hold production at least at equal weight with more theoretical issues and do put significant focus on it. We will hold, therefore, that the difference between the two major approaches lies not in the subject matter of coursework as Bogost and associates suggest but rather in the teaching methodology between skills-oriented and academically-oriented programs.

     The Skills-Oriented Approach

    The longer-standing approach that is more commonly adopted by trade and art schools is, as Bogost suggests, production-oriented and aims to train students in practical skills and help them define a strong portfolio for entering the job market. They are founded by industry veterans who have worked for their tenure in the entertainment industry and are interested in passing on their skills, and so these programs have several key traits. First, skills-oriented programs and invariably the schools that offer them tend to be highly focused on one discipline, being defined by what those veteran instructors take with them.

    For instance, while a school like the Art Institute may offer game programming classes, the depth of the coursework in this area as opposed to art-oriented coursework is considerably limited within their program. In contrast the Computer Games Technology program at Algoma University in Canada focuses exclusively on programming and mathematics. While this limits the worldview that students develop within these institutions it does bring them a philosophical satisfaction as they are able to find programs that are closely associated with their perspectives on games and their own skill sets, backgrounds, and personal goals.

    Second, because of that focus and the focus the instructors bring with them, these programs are highly regimented. But for a few exceptions skills-oriented programs mainly consist of smaller art schools rather than large universities and the coursework is much more tightly defined. All students of a particular class level tend to take all the same classes at the same time. The scale enables instructors to work more closely with students while the regimentation of the course schedule gives students an ease of cooperation and helps focus their philosophical points of view more. At the same time it also lends a persistence to their teams that enables them to, on the short-term, define their own corporate culture within the class.

    Third, as these are often smaller institutions they aren't challenged by scaling issues that a larger school may face, they aren't challenged by the same budgetary concerns. However the budgetary needs of these skill-oriented programs are all the higher on a per-student basis as they must remain constantly up-to-date with the latest industry standards in hardware and technology. The small scale coupled with the high resource demands to maintain this standard and the privatization of these institutions often results in very high tuition without scholarships, rendering these programs inaccessible to many students.

    Compounding the accessibility issue is their lack of academic accreditation. Within the schools themselves these issues hold no sway and the game industry itself prizes their portfolio value, but incoming students, as stated previously, come from a wide variety of backgrounds with varying degrees of knowledge and may feel compelled to seek out a more accredited institution either for intellectual or philosophical reasons or because they feel uncomfortable with such a narrowly focused program at such a small school.

    The Academically-Oriented Approach

    The academic approach to teaching game design is defined not by academically-oriented subject matter but by more traditional academically-oriented teaching methodology and philosophy. Only in the worst-case scenario does Bogost's proposed "game studies" social science-oriented program override students' goals completely and fail to prepare them for jobs in-industry. As stated before, most especially in the case of MSU and USC, the coursework of an academic program can be and is often inclusive of game production-oriented work.

    The difference here is that the pressures of legitimacy are much more strongly felt here than at more focused schools, though perhaps not necessarily from the instructors' perspectives. In these particular examples strong film studies and media arts programs already existed in the infrastructure of the universities and it was fairly natural that they adopt digital game design programs. Students always feel the pressures of academic legitimacy, though, as they are held to the rest of the university's standards regardless of the focus of their program, the demands of their courses, and the demands they place upon themselves, which often prove more of a challenge to instructors in this situation than does the subject matter itself.

    It certainly presents a challenge to students; in a production-based area of study so filled with technical, communicative, and design challenges and with great personal demands that need to be met in order for students to get jobs, students can feel tremendous pressure in an an educational setting that asks that they meet stringent general education and credit-hour requirements with course lists that rotate on the per-semester or even per-year basis.

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