To school or not to school?

Should you go to school and get a degree, or just jump in, make a mod, and impress the gaming world with your mad skills?

Well, I've spent the last six weeks in crunchy goodness getting my latest game out. By the next time I post I should be able to let you all in on the name of the game. But not yet!

Today's topic is education. One of the most common questions I get from people interested in pursuing a career in the game industry is whether or not they should get a formal degree.

At first glance, this seems like an odd question. If you want to be an accountant, you'll get some kind of degree in accounting. If you want to be a lawyer or a doctor, you'll have to get an advanced degree in either law or medicine. So, it seems like the answer to this question would be a resounding "YES!"

However, there is a decided split of opinion on whether or not a formal degree is essential to pursuing a career in game development. Those who favor an education point out the classic benefits of having a degree, while those on the other side see a degree as just another piece of paper, and stress the creative elements of game development that can't be learned in a lecture.

Once again, we can blame rock 'n roll.

After all, how many rock stars have music degrees? These people made it because they practiced their craft and pushed on with their dream. In the same way, there are legitimate stories of people who have made a great new mod (think Counter-Strike) or a great new game (think Portal), and then went on to game development glory without the hassle (or expense) of a formal education, right?

Actually, both co-developers of Counter-Strike graduated from college with formal degrees while the co-developers of Portal were all students at DigiPen. Somehow this point is often left out when these stories are told.

In the early days of game development, it was much more common for a brilliant game idea to be enough to ensure a bright future as a game develeoper. And there are people out there -- renegades of our industry -- who made it on sweat and blood more that textbooks and Cliff notes. Well, not to worry, even with a degree, you'll still have to put in the sweat and blood!

For the record, I am a member of the camp who strongly encourages newcomers in our industry to pursue a formal degree.  I'm not saying that it is impossible to get into the game industry without a degree, just that it is more difficult.

Now that the game industry has matured, the hiring practices have become more akin to those found in the corporate world. Scan the job postings on Gamasutra and count the number that require a formal degree. There are several key reasons why having a degree tends to make you a much more appealing candidate for any employer.

  1. A student with a formal degree has successfully completed a gamut of courses that have been analyzed and certified to effectively teach the material at hand. Schools, professors, and curriculum all have to be accredited by third parties for quality and relevance.
  2. As you go through school, your knowledge of the subject matter is continually tested and verified. All of this is rolled up into two significant marks: your GPA and your completed degree. While you could read all of the same books and do all of the same “homework” on your own, there would be no third party verification that you had successfully learned the material.
  3. Bypassing a formal education means you miss out on a significant part of the classroom experience: practical knowledge and mentoring from those who are professionals or educators in the field.
  4. Many employers see school as an analogy of the work environment. In school you have to show up on time, meet deadlines, and perform under pressure. The same is true in the job environment. The fact that you succeeded in school under such a structured environment is seen as evidence that you might also succeed at the job.

For many companies, a degree is a kind of litmus test. When faced with a stack of 100 applications for a single job, the first stage of rejections might simply be based on who has a degree and who doesn’t. This creates a catch-22 situation. While most companies ultimately hire based on “what you know” no matter how you learned it, it may be difficult to ever get the opportunity to show what you know if you can’t get people to take your resume seriously. 

That's it for this post! For those of you who have decided that it is in your best interests to pursue a degree, the next big question is what kind of degree or school is best? That's next time!



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