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Games have a place in higher education, but where they are now isn’t working.

Explanations on where game development college programs are failing, suggestions on how to objectively improve them, and encouragement for students to make the most of their secondary education.

(Disclaimer: the experiences that I have had and witnessed are not referencing a single game development college program, but more importantly, are from nationwide colleges across the United States. I speak as someone that has spoken to dozens of students from the west coast, the midwest, and the east coast, so my advice is neither isolated nor directed at a specific school.)

Originally posted on Medium here.

     This is my senior year of college. I’ll have been in school for 5 years by the time that I graduate; a time lengthened by transferring schools and an internship. I’ve switched majors once on paper, but three times unofficially. I have about a full year of professional-level experience, which is a mix of AAA, indie, and freelance work, and I’m finishing with my Bachelor’s in Game Art in May. I am tired, ready to graduate, and concerned about the state of how game development is perceived in higher education. Games are young, which is a huge part of why game programs aren’t polished, but I think the issues go a bit deeper and are more complicated than that.

     As someone that reviewed portfolios for a studio last year at GDC and continues to do so, as someone that has worked my ass off to be ready to work before I graduate, I’ve seen patterns in students in both my near vicinity and well beyond it. These are not isolated problems, but issues that the wide majority of general game development programs have issues with on some level. A lack of preparation, a lack of cultural understanding, of technical know-how, of soft skills, of professionalism, of interviewing skills. I think these come from issues that many schools that teach at game programs wrestle with, and I don’t think these issues are isolated between different programs. I wanted to put into words the concerns that trouble me and how I think they, in a perfect world, could be minimized into being significantly less impactful on students’ and faculties’ successes. This doesn’t consider financial resources, human resources, the speed at which programs change evolve, and dozens of other real-world factors, but I think if students better understood this list, they could more effectively take their education into their own hands and take some responsibility and control over their career trajectory. It’s really hard to find statistics and research on this stuff, so I’ll be speaking completely from experience. The majority of these points are aimed at issues that I see in students that want to work in AAA or competitive studios but aren’t doing the work to get there.


Expose Students to Reality


     The primary issue that I see is a general lack of professional-level skillsets, and accompanying that, ignorance of the quality that students should be aiming for. The world doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it DEFINITELY doesn’t exist in the vacuum that a classroom can be. It’s easy for students to get in the habit of just comparing themselves to their classmates to determine if they’ll be “ready” or not when they graduate, but that doesn’t work. If you compare red to magenta when you haven’t seen the rest of the rainbow, they look completely different.

     A solution to this is to take students out of the context of being a student and to consistently expose them to concepts, challenges, and situations that more directly emulate or actually exist in the professional working world. When students are shown how far they are from being in working-ready conditions, they respond in one of two ways: either shutting down or tackling it head-on. I think it’s only fair to give students the opportunity to decide how they’ll react. That is ultimately their choice, as is their level and definition of success. Students should be intensely challenged as soon as they walk in the door of secondary education and to be told, “This is what it takes. If you’re not going to do it, you probably shouldn’t be here, and the door is over there.” This is doing the students a favor, not being cruel. Not being transparent about the necessary steps to be successful is taking advantage of them, and I think it’s a school’s responsibility to be clear and direct. When students invest in their education, they’re essentially saying to that school, “I trust the quality of your program, and I trust that you will tell me what I need to know.” When that hard work is pussyfooted around by the school’s marketing and other layers of muddiness, that’s taking advantage of the student body. That’s taking a student’s money, selling them a product without reading the fine print, and patting their back as they walk out the door. Outplacement rates of game development schools are frighteningly low, but most students are completely unaware of this. The first school that I went to was a globally-ranked industrial design school in Cincinnati. Their acceptance rate was less than half a percent. About half of the students dropped out before the end of the first semester. They told us on our first day, “The first year is to pull out the weeds. If you are still here sophomore year, then we know that you’re a flower.”

     This taught us a multitude of small lessons, some harsher and crueler than others. The primary lesson learned is that no one cares about your excuses, your reasons for not showing up, your absences and tardies. Telling a professor why you didn’t put your heart into a project isn’t about making your relationship good with your professor, it’s about convincing yourself that missing one project won’t affect your career path, your chance of success, your dedication to craft. None of that is true. Making excuses to anyone is a façade of making excuses to yourself. This also taught us that in order to be successful, the work was going to challenge us in new and confusing ways. It started our careers with the expectation of difficulty, dedication, and sacrifice. It taught us that breezing through the program wouldn’t simply get us removed from the college, but also removed from our ideal trajectory. Expectations were high and we set out to meet them. Because of this, outplacement rates within 6 months of graduation were incredibly high, and average salaries of these first industry jobs were around $65K.

     By exposing students to the work of professionals, they’re removed from the classroom vacuum. Most people can look at two pieces of work side-by-side and identify the better one. It doesn’t just take playing games and talking about them and piecing them together to be a strong developer. It requires a fundamental understanding of craft and skill outside of the world of games. In order to be an excellent game artist, you need to understand art in a way that just isn’t taught in game programs. The reason that I am where I am today skill-wise is primarily because I was taught product design fundamentals in Cincinnati. It’s not just about being fast in Maya or being able to render a scene really technically well- it’s about being able to visualize a concept elegantly and then to execute and implement it without losing anything in the translation. I can draw well because I spent 3 18-credit hour semesters drawing literally hundreds of boxes and ellipses by hand for hours and hours every week. I hated it, but I trusted my faculty and it paid off.

     This sort of lesson, frankly, isn’t something that’s taught in game art programs. It just isn’t. I personally think that the first two or three semesters of game programs shouldn’t be talking about games hardly at all, but rather, with students separated into the industries that built up the fundamentals of their concentrations into what they are today. Art students should be taking rigorous fundamental drawing and traditional painting classes, regardless of if they’re going 2D or 3D. Programmers should take fundamental computer science classes. We need to step out of this game bubble and realize why the people that made games before secondary education game programs are so badass at what they do: a fundamental understanding of the skills required. Learning how to use Maya doesn’t take that long when done properly, but an investment into the understanding of light, color, and elegant design pays off for years. It’s like constructing a building. If you’re only thinking about making quick walls and a roof, you’ll have a hatch hut that falls at the first breeze. In order to build a skyscraper, you need to understand where you are presently, but also where you need to be and how to get there. We need to invest in our foundations before even attempting to build the walls, but we need to have a blueprint so that we can mold our foundations with sights set on the future.


Portfolio Killers


     Major flaws that I see in students’ portfolios are a lack of professional communication, presentation, and content choices. In an age that we can just Google what a professional portfolio looks like, this is baffling. Students should be told early in their college career to start looking at professional portfolios so that they have a stronger understanding about what a convincing body of work looks like. On this same note, I think that students should be required to have a portfolio website by the end of their third semester. It doesn’t have to be full of finished projects, but the layout should be polished and professionally put together.

     A portfolio is not a business card, it’s not a stagnant presentation. The most successful and convincing portfolios are living documents that evolve and change as the creator does. A portfolio must go through several passes of evolution before it can be impactful. By having what is essentially a template by their mid-sophomore year, the students then have time to make iterations, respond to feedback, and align their presentation closer to the professional self they want to portray as they become more experienced. I think students should consistently compare their presentation to that of more successful predecessors so that they can understand what led to their victories. What is each piece communicating? What skill is it demonstrating? What gap is it filling, and how can the student build their own bridges?

     Having a portfolio is more than just being ready to apply to a job. The purposes of having a body of work go far beyond that; they can be to self-analyze your skills, get feedback from peers, and start specifying career goals. There are also lessons that can be learned early on if students have a game-specific portfolio-building course. Common mistakes made by students could be easily avoided if the common ones were addressed in the curriculum. Portfolio reviewers see patterns of mistakes, such as game art students having figure drawings, messy traditional work, or unrelated content making up most of their body of work. If it were explained to students why these sorts of pieces weaken a portfolio, then maybe these things could be avoided altogether.

     Another issue that I see is the lack of early trajectory by students, and the lack of seeking trajectory. If faculty want students to be hungry, then they need to put a meal in front of them. This aligns directly with my thoughts on having a portfolio early on, and I think that exposing students to how awesome they can be also challenges how willing they are to get there. A lot of folks want to draw well, but few are willing to put the time into drawing ellipses and perspective. Being epic requires a lot of self-motivation and drive, which is built up through constructive habits and high expectations. That is a decision that students need to be willing to make.


Experience Boost


     Going off of the portfolio pointers, another major reason that game students aren’t finding success after school is a lack of experience. I’m not talking about a lack of studio time or professional resume points, but I’m talking about lack of experience in general. I think it’d be empowering for students to learn early on about the ways that they can get game dev time under their belts without being in a professional studio. That said, the only thing faculty can do here is to make suggestions. The choice to be proactive is completely on the student. Here are a few recommendations that I think should be communicated:


  1. Volunteering at local game events

    • Connects students with proactive members of the local gaming community and helps to build a reputation

    • Makes student more visible to other game-passionate folks

    • Volunteering is 100% of the time a great resume piece

  2. Attending game dev meet-ups consistently

    • Connects students with professionals and gets them out of the classroom bubble

    • Shows proactivity, passion, and time-investment on the student’s end

    • Listening to pro devs provides lessons that won’t be learned in a classroom

    • Makes it easier for students to interact and communicate with professionals

  3. Working on projects with fellow students

    • Have professional-level quality goals

    • Keep scope small to provide space for rapid iteration

    • Helps with cross-team communication

    • Develops a better understanding of other roles and how to work with them

    • Strengthens friendships and future professional relationships

    • Helps to evolve social maturity and team dynamics

  4. Volunteering to work on indie projects remotely

    • Unpaid work is often, unfortunately, better than no work

    • Helps students work remotely on a schedule

    • Provides chance to understand how to work freelance

    • Builds understanding of contracts, professional expectations, how to communicate well over the internet (which is necessary!)

    • Helps build feedback- receiving and -giving skills (which are necessary!)

    • Indie gigs are pretty easy to find when you’ll work for cheap and have base skills

    • Low expectations and low commitment provides flexibility to continue school

  5. Founding student organizations

    • Organizations need to that actually mean something and have purpose

      • Don’t make “we play games on Tuesday and eat pizza” orgs. They don’t mean anything.

      • Have an intent: directed discussion, mentorship, bringing in speakers, analyzation of media, etc.

    • Shows leadership, proactivity, and a time investment

  6. Participating in game jams

    • Every finished game is a victory

    • Better understand team dynamics

    • Build understanding of scope and appreciation of rapid iteration

    • Make relationships with other passionate developers

    • A million other reasons, please just do it


     To sum this list up- there are an unlimited amount of ways to get experience without even interviewing. Every piece outside of school counts extra points, so it’s important for students to be seeking collaborative work and team projects. Ideally, at least of a third of a student’s resume should be points outside of school. This allows social maturity, teamwork effectiveness, and communication skills to evolve and expand, all of which are things intensely lacking in game programs.


The Gameless Resume


     It’s jarring to look at a game student’s resume and not see a single specified game project on it, but this is something that happens all the time. While students might be in school for 4 years, often, they’re not even working on their first real video game until senior year. This is a huge issue for a few reasons- first of all, it leaves very little room for failure, and failure is where we learn the most. Also, it provides few opportunities for understanding and appreciating other roles. It takes time for different concentrations to learn how to communicate with each other, and this is essential for being in a professional work environment and to build a lasting career in media.

     From a curriculum perspective, there’s much that can be done here. The first idea that comes to mind is to have a class that’s made up of 2-week sprints. The entire semester would basically be made up of short game jams with an emphasis on scope, efficiency, and creativity, and it would be intended to provide countless opportunities for failure and disappointment, then for victories and redemption. Not only do students need to learn how to deal with internal thoughts when presented with failure, but also how to interact with each other. No one wants to have someone in the room punching a whiteboard when a build doesn’t come together, but hopefully a class like that would help students mature out of that response. This would also result in 7-9 bite-sized games, and hopefully at least 2 of them would be something that the students could be proud of. Consider having a class in which students pitch a game, and then they have to try to make it within two or four weeks.

     Another solution that could be made within curriculum would be to have two capstone projects. One would be over their junior year, and the other over their senior year. The junior-level capstone could have lower commitments and credit hours, but it would be exposure to working on a team project over an extended period of time. I think this would provide a significant extra layer of preparation for senior year, when they could take the lessons that they had learned before and apply it to a new idea. The entire idea is to provide a space for failure, and then to create a setting in which they can use what they learned from that disappointing experience.


Strengthening Soft Skills


     The last point that I want to discuss (which someone could and probably has written an entire book about) is how underemphasized and brushed aside soft skills are. If you’re a student and you don’t know what soft skills are, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. They’re the ability to communicate well, to react to tough situations in a way that’s emotionally mature, to work alongside others in a way that’s respectful and professional, to be adaptable, and so forth. They go further than that and they apply to every profession and career. These attributes come more naturally to some than others, but they can be developed and strengthened over time. That said, they’re one of the more difficult things to teach objectively other than in response to how someone is acting. It’s easier to teach soft skills reactively than proactively, which is a big part of why early-on experience and student projects are important. Old habits can be addressed in the learning space that is a classroom rather than in a professional setting, where inappropriate actions can have dire career consequences.

     Game development by nature is full of failure, and that is often where we see the most rash of reactions. Think about how much students could learn about themselves in that 2-week sprint class! When builds don’t come together or code breaks in the last second, I’ve seen students punch whiteboards, shame their teammates, and storm out of rooms. These reactions are absolutely unacceptable in work environments. What if a recent graduate lands an amazing entry job because they’ve worked so hard over the last four years on their coding skills, and then blows it when something goes wrong at work? If students could find solutions to these reactions in the controlled space of the classroom, then I don’t think we would see as many outbursts and brazen responses to failure. Young developers need to forgive, to keep a cool head, to constantly ask questions, and to chuckle once in a while in the face of absolute chaos.


To Recap


     So to tackle the lack of professional-level skills, I recommend emphasizing fundamental skills and having high expectations from students. Class examples that would be good for this include (speaking on the game art concentration because it’s what I know the most about) more drawing and traditional painting courses, more color theory, more master studies and photo studies, and more art history. By understanding where we came from, we can better control our future. Thousands of students go into game art wanting to be a concept artist, but they don’t even know where concept art came from. I chose to go to an industrial design school because I did the research ahead of time and found that most concept art masters studied product design. This gave them artistic and design flexibility that I got to see before transferring into a game design program, and it will pay off for the rest of my career.

     In order to combat a lack of professional portfolio understanding, I recommend having a portfolio-building class, a portfolio required by the end of the third semester, and a skill-based portfolio review at the end of the sophomore year in order to gauge if students are ready to continue. By exposing young developers to the heights they need to reach, they can set achievable steps and build ladders to get there. If students are entering higher-level classes that they aren’t prepared for, that’s a failure on the side of the institution. This enables passivity, holds back other students, and permits fatally low expectations.

     Experience, as stated before, can be built in unique and impactful ways if done so proactively and intentionally. It’s absolutely necessary for students to have in order to get that first entry job and to stand out from the thousands of game students that graduate and enter the workforce every year. Even if someone is getting good grades and jumping through all of the hoops, that doesn’t mean anything if lessons haven’t been learned in a real world setting.

     I believe that college game development programs can do amazing things, and I look forward to seeing where they’ll be 5 or 10 years from now. I think the more that students are challenged and pushed forward, the better results we’ll have as education evolves. As someone that expects to be a professor one day, I hope to only continue to participate as a mentor until I can help to improve game programs from the inside. If you're a parent with a kid in or wanting to be in game dev and this article has been terrifying you, don't worry. Hard work, self-motivation, seeking opportunity, and self-discipline can make your kid's dream possible. Please encourage them to pursue what makes their heart sing.

     I'm not writing this saying that I have all of the answers or a perfect portfolio or expert-level work, but I hope that this can provide some insight for game development program faculty and students. I know other folks my age that are well past where I am, but everyone at that level has only achieved it through hard work and self-motivation. I believe that EVERYONE has the core potential to have the victories before graduation that I have had when they have the resources to do so. I know it takes time for curriculum to change, but perhaps some students will learn from this and find ways to fill the gaps themselves. It’s been working for me so far, and I only wish you the best of luck.

Feel free to comment with any suggestions or points that you'd like me to elaborate on!

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