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Ask the Experts: High School Prep for Game Programming

In the latest ‘Ask the Experts,’ the advice column from sister educational site GameCareerGuide.com, a high school student asks what courses to take to prepare for future studies in game programming.
In the latest ‘Ask the Experts,’ the advice column from GameCareerGuide.com, a high school student asks what courses to take to prepare for future studies in game programming. Gamasutra is also running this entry-level game development column in collaboration with GameCareerGuide.com. For more advice about breaking into professional game-making, visit GameCareerGuide.com’s Getting Started page. Dear Experts, I’m a sophomore in high school, and I want to become a game programmer, but all the schools I look at also want me to have a major in computer science. Is it the same thing, or should I just pick one and live with it? Also, what courses should I take to get prepared for them? My counselor told me to take computer programming, and I’m trying to convince my parents to get me my own computer for my birthday. Thanks, Confused in Kentucky Dear Kentucky, I can understand why you are confused by the programs that are offered at different schools. You’re confused because so many schools set up their programs and departments differently. There’s no standard way of doing it. Some universities have a computer science department, and within that department, there might be some classes related to games. Other universities have multiple departments, but their core courses are the same. Some even have special schools or colleges, like a school of engineering, within the larger university. And it’s not just computer science that has this weird break down. For example, some colleges offer a degree in English, while others offer degrees in literature, journalism, or creative writing -- and all those subclasses of “English” might have their own departments, or they could be part of the English department. Game programming, in a sense, is a subclass of computer science. If you find a university that does not have any game-related classes at all, then computer science is the closest you’re going to get. If the school offers both computer science and game programming, then you have a choice. It’s up to you to decide how specifically game-related you want your education to be. But don’t worry -- you don’t have to settle on that now. Most universities in the U.S. and Canada allow students to enroll without declaring a major until they are well into their second year. You don’t have to make a commitment when you first get there. Apply to college that you like, enroll in some classes, and just get your feet wet. See how you like it. Meanwhile, ask upperclassmen which courses they’ve found most useful, and more importantly, which professors have an interest in video games. If you attend a school that asks you to declare a major before you are accepted (outside the U.S. and Canada, students are usually locked into a course of study well before they even apply to university), I would recommend you talk with your parents or who ever is helping you make decisions about college. Let them read our Parents’ Frequently Asked Questions to help them get started in understanding the profession of game development. Also remember that your education doesn’t have to stop at the undergraduate level. If you complete a BSc in computer science, you can always advance to do a master’s degree in something more specific to games, or another subclass of computer science, like network programming, for instance, which is an immensely useful specialization to have in the world of game development. As a sophomore in high school (for our overseas readers, Kentucky is about 15 or 16 years old and is probably studying a general education curriculum), the most important subject for you to focus on is math. Take as much math as you can, and try your very best to excel at it. Having a strong foundation in algebra, calculus, and trigonometry will make your life much easier by the time you reach a university-level programming course. Oh, and if you convince your parents to buy you a new computer for your birthday, would you ask them to get me one, too? Good luck! [Jill Duffy is editor of GameCareerGuide.com. Ask the Experts is a biweekly advice column that answers questions sent in from aspiring game developers, their parents, and other people interested in learning more about making video games as a profession. If you have a question you’d like to see answered here, send it to theexperts(at)gamecareerguide.com.]

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