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Road to Game Success: Paved with Skills

Does the investment in a college degree in game design help get you a job in the industry? It can if the degree you pick gives you both the skills you need and a platform to show off those skills.

As the director of design programs at a top-ranked college for game design, naturally I have a front row view of what it takes for students to successfully break into the highly competitive interactive media industry.

In addition to evidence of high caliber studio experience, the demand for a new breed of designers, who are self-aware and strong collaborators, is on the rise.

A resume for successful entry into the field these days includes a list of published games with examples of contributions to published properties. Of course this kind of evidence, which is the gold standard in interactive media, can come from only one place — experience. In fact, as nascent, would-be game designers compete to find that elusive, first entry-level position in the media industry, they soon discover that demonstrable experience is the crucial differentiator between success and failure.

Experience is the evidence of an individual’s ability to think creatively; to solve problems leading to decision making; to understand what it means to work in a team environment in a professional way; to be competent in their own area of expertise; and to know what it means to add value to an endeavor.

This is why students must have opportunities to develop real game properties in an honest-to-goodness game studio environment throughout their college careers. At the same time, an effective program must provide skills-based — as opposed to tools-based — education in competency areas mapped to the needs of the industry, such as game design, game art, game programming and game production.

It’s encouraging to see the world’s top college game design programs shifting to curricula that emphasize the development of games in real-world environments that lead to the creation of interactive media properties of publishable quality. To most people this vocational approach to game design education would seem to be a no-brainer. But is often easier said than done.

Most vocationally oriented college-level interactive media design programs spend a good deal of time teaching students how to use the latest game development tools. Unfortunately, these tools often have very short lives. By the time graduation rolls around, the tools learned in the classroom may no longer be relevant.

The emphasis of modern game design education must be to concentrate on the process of game making, alongside the development of competencies that can demonstrate skill sets that are tool agnostic. While the next generation of game designers must understand 3D modeling, computer programming, agile project development, level design and artificial intelligence, they must they also learn about the science, math, psychology, sociology, philosophy, English, history and economics that provide the context for the games they will create.

Interactive media is truly a staple of our modern existence. Everything from mobile apps and websites to the tech that enables our kitchen gadgets and cars, uses the same kind of software that drives our favorite video games. Effective game design education must be broader than entertainment alone.

Young people entering the work world, regardless of their career path, further need to be equipped with an entrepreneurial mindset and skills that enable them to continuously navigate, adapt and readapt to rapid change. According to scholars studying the future of technology, social trends and jobs, we will experience as much change in the way we work over the next 20 years as we have in the last 2,000. One of those changes, according to author and scholar, Cathy Davidson (http://www.cathydavidson.com/about/), is that 65 percent of school age students today will likely work in jobs that do not yet exist.

Starting in the fall, at Becker College, we are launching a new, game design curriculum that we’ve named, GAME V2.0. We’ve retooled our program based on extensive game industry feedback and many lessons learned over the last 10 years that our program has been in existence. We offer authentic studio experience in game design, programming, art and production. Our focus is on skills — including entrepreneurship, collaboration and problem solving — not tools.

I believe our design represents a true paradigm shift in how the next generation of game designers and developers not only will be prepared, but must be prepared to lead successful careers in the game design industry.

(Paul Cotnoir, Ph.D., PE, CMfgE, is director of game design at Becker College, ranked fifth on The Princeton Review’s list of the top-25 undergraduate schools worldwide to study game design for 2015.)

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