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Playing to win: The value of a video game design degree

Posted by Michael Warshaw  November 7, 2013 03:00 PM

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By Paul D. Cotnoir, Ph.D., director of design programs, Becker College

It was the fall of 2005. My oldest son came to me and said, “Dad, I want to go to college and study video game design!”

That was heart attack number one. That was well before Becker College established the video game design program that I now direct. At the time, video game design was not widely regarded as a bona fide major worthy of academic study.

Even so, my son started the program, did well, and graduated with honors. Then came heart attack number two. After graduation, he said, “Dad, I really don’t want to work in the video game industry!”

Of course, the question was whether he had wasted all that time and effort. It turns out he did not. He quickly found a great job in instructional technology design at a well-respected university – a job he loves to this day.

But that was a future yet to be known. The lesson: one of the greatest values of a good education in video game design is that it produces a number of valuable student outcomes, including in-demand skills in computer programming, computer interface design, and computer graphics--and even more fundamental abilities: critical thinking, time and resource management, effective team work, and the analysis and synthesis of large disparate data sets.

In other words, video game design is fast becoming the new “Swiss army knife” degree, applicable to a wide array of career paths. Video game technology is used daily to accomplish a variety of goals, from improving education, enhancing the workplace, and helping to solve social ills, to positively impacting human health and well-being – the so-called “serious games.”

In the serious games space, schools like MIT, Harvard, and the University of Southern California, to name just few, use talented game designers to develop engaging educational games. Companies as diverse as Canon, Marriot, and UPS employ serious games for training and marketing. The United Nations, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and many other non-profits are using game professionals to promote their cause and help solve social problems the world over. Another large user of game technology is our own government and the US Department of Defense.

In order to produce designers who are attractive to a wide audience of employers, a good video game design curriculum should be relevant, connected, and engaged. It should offer experiences that cross disciplines, genres, and platforms.

But how do you measure whether a video game design program is good?

Uranium-232 has a half-life of about 70 years. That means if you hold a lump of it in your hands for 70 years (something I don’t recommend), half of its radioactivity will be gone. Wait another 70 years, and half of the remaining half will be gone, and so forth. You could say the same thing about the skills we learn.

When I took computer programming in the 1980s, it was in a language called Fortran, and computer programs were entered on punch card machines. The specific things I learned about Fortran syntax and punch card systems went the way of the dodo fairly rapidly, but I also learned something that is still valuable: a logical method to find solutions to general problems, a skill I have used right up to the present day. A high- value video game degree should have as many kinds of relevant components, as opposed to elements with much shorter half-lives.

Connection, or connectedness, is another critical value. Connection is closely related to relevance, since it pertains to the social and professional networks that can help a graduate find a place in the industry.

Schools such as Yale and Harvard are exceptional institutions of higher learning. Graduates of such pedigreed universities can gain entry to almost any traditional field: law, medicine, politics, through the extensive alumni network and the reputation of excellence that these institutions are known for. That is not necessarily the case for the graduates of game design programs. The whole video game industry is only a little over 50 years old (Spacewar!, considered by most historians as the first video game, was developed at MIT in 1961), and bona fide degrees in the subject are much younger. Only now, as the industry matures, is there a significant need or respect for individuals with degrees in the field. There has not been enough time to develop universally accepted job roles or strong alumni networks.

Connectedness, as a hallmark of good game design programs, typically takes the form of strong relationships between academic units and companies from industry. These connections provide internship opportunities and real-world, network-building experiences for game students while they are still in school. Connections may also be formed by industry professionals who serve as mentors and educators in an adjunct capacity. Connections need to be established as a significant part of the curricular process, and cannot wait for graduation day.

Finally, there is engagement. Good video game design programs are built around the game development process. Students must make games on a constant and consistent basis to be successful.

Most college students spend about 15 hours per week in class, 30 hours per week doing homework, and an additional 40 or so hours per week sleeping. This leaves about 80 hours per week for everything else, including playing games.

According to game guru Dr. Jane McGonigal, playing video games releases a plethora of positive emotions, including joy, relief, love, pride, contentment, and creativity. Therefore, game design majors are naturally inclined to spend a greater amount of time per week devoted to their studies than are students enrolled in what might be described as less engaging majors. In short, they are naturally engaged in the subject. Their passion is what they study. They derive pleasure and enjoyment from what they study.

A good video game design program encourages this engagement to the greatest extent possible, offering plenty of opportunities for developing complete games – not just components or assets. It may be important for students in the game discipline to learn how to create 3D models, but it is engaging when they learn how to create 3D models because those models are specific assets that they need to complete a game of their own design. Engagement is also closely related with connectedness, since it is much more appealing for students to have an opportunity to work on projects alongside industry professionals from studios they have heard of, than to spend hours in dusty classrooms.

So, video game design degrees do have value in the marketplace, and the video game design programs with the greatest value are those which are relevant, connected, and engaged.

Paul D. Cotnoir, Ph.D., is director of design programs at Becker College in Worcester, Mass.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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MassDiGI 8-24 287w872.jpgThe State of Play, organized by MassDiGI, features stories by digital and video game developers and business insiders. Follow along @mass_digi.

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