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My Game Design Degree: A Postmortem

A new graduate breaks down the pros and cons of attending a post-secondary school game design program, as well as advice on what students can do to prepare for the future.

Devon Wiersma, Contributor

April 1, 2018

16 Min Read

After 4 long years, I’m almost graduating with a Bachelors of Game Design degree from Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada.


Go me!


Over the last 4 years I’ve been to MIGS, had my writing published here and there on the internet and even been to GDC twice which is impressive to me since I knew next to nothing about game development when I started all this.


It’s been a long journey, but I thought the best way I could commemorate the event would be to reflect on my past 4 years in this program; what I wish I knew, what I learned and a little bit of philosophy on post-secondary schooling in general.


Be aware not all of this will be about Game Design programs (or post-secondary education, even!) and can apply to many different fields as well. Additionally, this is all just my personal opinion and everything below can be taken with a grain of salt!


Learning Is Hard

Before spending 4 years on Game Design, I spent 1 in a general arts program. My time in general arts mostly taught me I didn’t really want to do art for a living - I like it as a hobby, not as work. That helped usher me into Game Design.


But it wasn’t until a year in Game Design did it kick in just how much more work college was than high school; in part because I was in an actual degree program now, but also because I was now doing something that I started to feel like I actually wanted to do with my life. The difference between high school and college to me was that college felt a billion times more relevant to my future. Not to mention that I was paying thousands of dollars for my education I needed to make it really count.


For my first year in Game Design I struggled with programming, not really understanding what I was doing and riding off the help of others. One day I had a group assignment where I couldn’t contribute anything and I realized how poorly prepared I was - and I didn’t want to keep that up for 3 more years!


Over the summer I was working full time, but I dedicated every weekend to programming my own little side projects which helped me build up my skills to where I felt confident enough in a group setting. I don’t remember doing anything aside from coding, working fast food and rollerblading that whole summer.


Before I knew it, I was coding almost every group project I was in for the next two years, mostly because no one else wanted to.


It was a good kick in the butt and the point where I realized this was the chance I had been waiting for my whole life - the chance to finally do something with my life and dedicate myself to something.


I’m not saying everyone will have an “a-HA!” moment, but try to remember that college is long, hard and you’re in it for the long haul. The industry is competitive - don't hope to just sail through like I did and hope everything will work itself out in the end.


Don’t Procrastinate

The single most frustrating thing about school was watching my classmates - people who I knew to be very skilled, hardworking and capable - put things off again and again until the last minute and then panic and crunch when their work wasn’t finished a few hours before the deadline.


This happened for almost every single assignment.


Early on I noticed I have pretty intense mental health troubles when I didn’t have something to work on. By necessity I always keep busy and try to get work in as early as possible since it makes me feel more comfortable about the homework process. A bonus was it gave me time to take breaks, work on portfolio pieces and I don’t have to crunch!


Unfortunately, humans have dumb biases which make them think procrastination is preferential to getting things over with early. Time management is one of the more important skills you can wrangle in your time at school - learn it early and apply it hard and you can save yourself a world of stress!

Network Early, Network Often

Lately I feel like I need to practice this more, but it helped me immensely.


In our third year we were required to find a co-op placement. While our school helped us do this, studios in the Toronto area weren’t exactly hiring at the time, so the onus was on us to do look for opportunities as well. On the suggestion of my professors, I started building my portfolio a year before our school gave us a class to help with it - just in case.


I had heard the year above us had trouble with finding placements, so I really wanted to get a jump on it while I still had time. Just like my previous coding misadventure, I spent the following summer developing my portfolio and media presence. On the advice of my professor Andrew Carvalho I started using Twitter (even though I didn’t much care for it) and started my awkward first foray into the world of networking.


Twitter was immensely helpful for me to get informed with the local game development scene since I knew almost no developers in my area. I started sharing the work I did regularly and kept tabs on what the folks around me were up to which helped me find chances to interact with local developers in person and strike up a conversation with then online before meeting them in person. This was extra helpful for me since I’m much more confident online than I am IRL!


I also started networking at events months before I really needed to find a co-op, which I think was important for me because it gave me time to build up my network online and practice networking skills before I was in a place of really having to rely on them. It definitely took me a few months to get used to the idea of handing a business card to someone after talking to them. All too often I see students in a similar position, just starting to learn the networking process when they realize they’re in need of opportunities and not beforehand, which has the unintended side effect of coming across as very awkward.


It was only after going to events for eight months did I meet someone who was looking for a designer and landed my first contract job - just by being in the right place at the right time. A lot of opportunities are based entirely on luck and sometimes networking is more about giving yourself more opportunities to be in the right place at the right time than it is about going around probing people for work.

Recognize The Privilege Of Having An Education

This is a big one too.


Through my schooling I’ve heard a handful of people from my own program and otherwise complain about post-secondary schooling. Things to the effect of “Why am I doing [insert really boring assignment here]? It’s a waste of my time!”


I won’t deny that there’s always going to be work that feels like it doesn’t apply to your skillset or feels like a waste. A lot of the time even if the work doesn’t feel worthwhile it can be if you’re willing to look at it that way: group assignments will always teach you how to work with people better, developing game will always give you new problems to solve, heck, even taking a physics class helped me brush up on my math skills which had been lying dormant for months on end.


But the biggest complaint I’ve heard from people is “I don’t need school to teach me [code, art, etc], I could learn all this online!”.


It’s true and on some level I agree, every hard skill I’ve learned in classes I’ve seen online in some form or another. I could take a masterclass online and learn art, or read an article on design to teach myself principles, or skim Unity’s forums to learn how to develop something.


However, the most valuable skills I’ve learned from school have been soft ones - working with people day in and day out, learning effective ways to communicate problems to other people, practicing taking and giving feedback in a kind and respectful manner, listening to and parsing feedback.


A lot of the time it’s even just the structure of schooling that gives you what you need - you develop a routine of learning and content fed directly to you in a distraction-free environment which most people likely aren't able to replicate outside of school. You would have to be a very specific self-motivated personality type to put yourself through a learning regime as effective as school can be - meanwhile some people have trouble even getting out of bed in the morning.


There are shadow benefits to schooling as well: if you’re fortunate enough to live in a country which offers student loans (like me) there’s a financial stability you likely wouldn’t have elsewhere. I can learn while having a roof over my head and food to eat, which I’m incredibly grateful for.


Some students I’ve spoken to viewed it as a chance to see more of the world they would have seen in their home country. A degree alone can qualify people for employment overseas which self-guided learning probably can't do. I’ve even spoken to someone in the past who came to the country to escape a politically unstable and dangerous home country - the education was more of a side-benefit to their own safety and sanity. They worried for their family at home but were glad to be somewhere they could feel safe.


That's why it breaks my heart to hear students complain about post-secondary education and tell people they “don’t need school”. It’s important to remember that while some of us don't need school, other people need it more than anything in the world.


Pay It Forward

I consider myself - a white male with government-provided student loans - incredibly privileged to be able to attend a postsecondary school for five years of my adult life studying a field I love. I don’t deny for a second that my ability to do the things listed in this article and the opportunities I’ve received are directly related to this.


Being able to learn as I have for the last few years is not something I intend to take for-granted either because, as mentioned above, lots of people would love to do what I’m doing too.


In November of 2016 a local student showcase called Eat Play Mingle (organized by the awesome Meagan Budgell) was held at George Brown College, another local post-secondary institution in the area. A friend and I signed up to demo our game there for the evening alongside other local Toronto developers.


At one point in the night there was a series of micro-talks by local devs called “Bonus Stage” where people would give a little talk on a topic of their choice. I watched a few of them (including some great ones from folks at 13AM Games) and they were a couple speakers short. I hated public speaking, but on a total impulse I decided to volunteer and improvised a (very nervous and excited) talk on Emergent Roleplay in Guild Wars 2 since it seemed like a great chance to express my passion on the subject. I actually enjoyed it and felt like I could use my experience to help others learn something for once!


From that point on I started trying to sharing my knowledge and experiences wherever I could; I wrote advocacy articles and blog posts (just like this one!), gave talks at multiple conventions and offered advice for other devs and students who were curious about getting into development. Over the last couple years I've ended up talking at over a dozen or so more Bonus Stages and was absolutely overjoyed when I saw my fellow students follow suit.


I try to use my position of privilege to give back to the game development community however I can, because I know there are tons of people out there who deserve this knowledge more than me. If I can be a conduit to pass it on to others, then so be it!


If you're in a position to share your knowledge and help other developers try and do what you can where you can. Not only will you feel better for doing it, you'll help make strong connections and help others grow in the process.


Woah, that got pretty heavy.


Obviously, there’s only so much I can fit into this blog. I didn’t even mention how I think school systems should model themselves as services and not businesses, or how students should be aware if they’re being exploited and not be afraid to use their voices to defend their rights where they can.


Ultimately, I’m of the opinion there’s good to be had in a Game Design education and equal parts bad. Just remember that at the end of the day, no amount of schooling or hard work is worth your well-being. Always remember to care for yourself as much as you possibly can.


If you’re a student and want to connect and chat about school or advice or game development or anything else under the sun you can always find me on Twitter with my DMs open or on my portfolio site via email.


Thanks for reading!

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