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  • 03/11/08 12:44 PM
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    Am I In the Wrong Degree Program?

    Career Development

    Myopic Rhino
    Dear Tom,

    I'm in university, and I'm about halfway through my bachelor's degree in New Media Studies. I'm enjoying it well enough, but what should I really be studying? The more I read on the online forums and the game development websites, the more I worry that I've been on the wrong track up to now. Should I be focusing on programming? Should I switch to art? Or should I quit this school and go for a Game Design degree? I'm worried that I may be wasting my time here. When I mentioned this to my dad, he got all bent out of shape, but I have to be true to mine own self, as Polonius said. Besides, a lot of the courses this school makes me take are subjects I'll never use, like foreign language, psychology, philosophy... So please give me the words of wisdom that I need, so I can be sure I'm studying the stuff I need to study so I can get a job in games right after college without wasting a lot of time searching.

    Johnny B. Student

    That isn't a letter from a real person, but it might as well be. I receive these questions all the time. I hope that the concepts in this article will help Johnny B.S., and others like him, deal with the uncertainties of life, especially during one's advanced studies. There are a number of important points raised by Johnny's letter. For each point, there's a general concept that can be applied to other questions that may occur to you sometime in your life. Taking them in order received:

    A degree program that you enjoy is the right program for you

    What you should really be studying is -- something you enjoy. You said it yourself, you gotta be true to thine own self. Who you are is what's important.

    Let's say that instead of video games, what you wanted to be was a brain surgeon. But maybe you're not all that good at biology or anatomy, and your hands aren't the finely tuned instruments that are necessary for brain surgery. And maybe what you are always doing, your favorite activity, is making web pages with very friendly user interfaces. If this was you, hopefully you'd flunk out of brain surgery college, else you'd be a pretty sucky brain surgeon and probably hurt someone. If this was you, you'd be better off learning graphic design, web design, and the psychology of user interfaces. Not only would you be better off doing that, society would be better off too.

    If you studied brain surgery but aren't really suited for it, later in life you might realize you need to get into a different line of work. And it might be something that requires you to have taken a different course of study. If you subsequently decided you wanted to become a lawyer, you'd have to go back to school and get a law degree, then take the bar exam. You'd think your medical degree wouldn't be worth that much - that you'd wasted time and money in med school. But later in life you'd probably find that it was useful after all, when involved in medical lawsuits. Very few endeavors that we give up represent wasted time.

    I mentioned medicine and law above. Those are two fields that pretty much require specific degrees. But the game industry isn't like that. There are no specific degree requirements. Those who aspire to program games can study Computer Science or Computer Information Management or Information Technology or any of a number of technical degrees. Because the key to getting the game programming job isn't the degree - it's the portfolio. It's expected that you have a technical degree, but the portfolio is what gets you in. If you're technically inclined, and torn between CS or IT, go with the one that seems more interesting or more accessible to you.

    Similarly, to get work as a game artist, it's expected that you have an art degree -- but it's the portfolio that paints the true picture of you.

    Worrying that you might be on the wrong track is a waste of time

    If you're sure you're taking the wrong path, that's one thing. When you know for sure, then you owe it to yourself to change paths. But when you are enjoying the path you're on, and you just have some small niggling doubts, why spend the energy worrying? Remember Alfred E. Neuman's famous words of wisdom: "What, me worry?" Besides, when you're on an enjoyable path, how could that be the wrong one for you? As long as you're applying yourself to an enjoyable course of study, you should stay with it.

    The concept of "wasted time" is also a waste of time. Because very few endeavors that you embark on are truly wasted time, even endeavors that get dropped along the way without reaching the original intended conclusion. Because it's by trying stuff that we learn. I hope that simple concept has been sufficiently explained. Because I don't want to waste a lot of time harping on it.

    Programming vs. Art

    Which of those two should you study instead of the course you're already enjoying, you asked. Johnny, you gotta be kidding. The real question is, are you passionate about -- and good at -- either one of them? If you were passionate about programming and knew you'd enjoy a programming course of study more than the one you're in now, then it'd be right to switch. If you were artistically inclined and knew you'd get more enjoyment from an art program than the one you're in now, then it'd be right to switch.

    But if you aren't already filling up your hard drive with algorithms and routines and programs or graphical environments or characters or vehicles and objects, then what makes you think you'd be better off studying one of those subjects instead of the course you're in now? Don't allow yourself to get sidetracked by red herring questions like this. Programming and art aren't the only kinds of jobs in games.

    Game Design degrees

    So-called game design degrees haven't yet reached the status of being required in the industry. For one thing, there's a problem in that game programming schools call their degrees "game design" when their degrees are really game programming degrees. Game art schools call their degrees "game design" when their degrees are really game art degrees. These degree programs are all young yet. This overly simplistic approach (everybody calling their degrees "game design") is bound to go away as the educational process of games matures.

    Another reason they're not yet required is that the vast majority of people in the industry have non-game degrees. And there aren't any academic standards in place yet that fall in line with what the industry needs. An employer who looks at a game degree on your r?sum? has no way of knowing if you really learned anything that the game industry needs its applicants to know. Someday, when older industry people have been largely replaced by today's students, and academic standards are in line with industry needs, then we'll see a heightened increase in the expectation that new candidates will have studied games in school.

    Those courses that you think you'll never use

    Later in life you'll be glad you studied French. Or Chinese, or Russian, or even Latin. Knowledge of other languages comes in useful at unexpected times. You'll just have to trust me on this one.

    It's funny that Johnny mentioned psychology. Psychology is everything! Effective game design depends on understanding the psychology of the users, and in order to be effective in his job, the game designer needs to understand the psychology of his coworkers, his boss, and other parties involved in the project. In fact, just about all majors include psychology as a requirement, and for good reason. Psychology is about understanding what makes people tick - including oneself. People are everywhere on this planet, and no matter what career you go into, you're going to have to deal with people.

    Even philosophy is important. If not for working in games, then for living on this planet. You'll meet people with many different attitudes and approaches to life, and you'll need to deal with them and make choices about your own approach to life. An educated choice is better than one that someone else hands you.

    You'll be glad that you know a smattering of biology, of political studies, of algebra and geometry (you will never get away from algebra and geometry - you'll need to use them your entire life!), of economics, of literature and mythology and music appreciation. You may even find yourself using these "useless" topics directly in game design. You might work on a game based on mythological beings, or you might need to design a balanced governmental system in a sim, or you might have to design the A.I. (the psychology of behavior) of a new species of living organism.

    And besides, the more formal and broad education you get, the more you'll be able to "get" a lot more of those throwaway lines in The Simpsons that you didn't get when you were a high school kid. Oh, wait. You are a high school kid. I guess you'll just have to trust me on these too.

    Getting a job in games right after college without "wasting a lot of time searching"

    You probably won't. So fuhgedaboudit right now. The industry can only absorb so many new people in the months after you graduate. After college you'll need to spend more time building your portfolio. You'll need a job to support yourself while you're doing that, and it would be most lucky indeed if that job happens to be in games. And if you don't live in an area where there are game companies, you'll need to move to a game area when you're able. Game companies don't pay relocation expenses for entry-level applicants.

    And if your targeted job is Game Designer or Associate Producer, you have to have an entry pathway. There's no such thing as an entry-level game design job or producing job. Years of game industry experience for these positions is usually required. So you need to prepare for a non-design, non-production pathway. If you have programming talent, programming is a perfectly fine entryway. If you're an artist, use graphics for your entryway. If you aren't talented, you can enter through a game company's QA department and eventually work in the studio in either design or production. If you have a business degree and marketing savvy, you can enter through a publisher's Marketing department and eventually become a producer, maybe even a designer. Internships are possible in the game industry, but internships usually don't pay, and there's no guarantee that one will lead to a full-time job at that company.

    It can take time to get your foot in the door. And after you've broken in, it can take time to attain that coveted position that many students aspire to.

    The bottom line for Johnny's question

    A lot of young people think that the road to a chosen career is a straight line that depends on getting a specific degree. But it ain't so. No degree is a guarantee of a career. It all depends on the individual. It's common to study one subject in college and then go in a different direction afterwards. A lot of those wanting to get into the game industry believe that there's an equation that looks like this:

    [Degree X] + hard work + perseverance = Game Biz Job
    So they ask what X is, and what the best school to get that degree is. They assume that X is a constant! They don't realize that X is a variable. And the variable is you. What you enjoy doing, what you're good at. What motivates you to apply yourself assiduously. So if you, like Johnny, are worried that you might be wasting time in a degree program that you enjoy, stop worrying and get with the program.

    (C) 2008 Tom Sloper

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