# University Degree - CS vs. CSGM

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Hi All,

Seeing that it's April, it's about that time when college decisions start coming in, and being a high school senior, well it's about the time I need to decide what university I'm planning to attend. I want to pursue a career in the game industry within programming.

Now, I've read several articles on the topic of a traditional CS degree vs a game degree, but they've typically been about a 4 year college degree vs a for-profit college offering a game degree, and most typically advocate for a traditional education.

The reason I'm asking, however, is because I'm in a bit of an interesting situation. I've had my eye on the University of Southern California for a while, for alot of reasons, but not only do they have the top game program in the nation, but they're also in LA, which to my knowledge, is one of the largest epicenters of game development in the US. I applied there as a Computer Science (Games) major and was recently accepted on a half-tuition scholarship and an undergraduate research fellowship. Despite being a games specific degree, at it's heart it's on par with their traditional computer science degree. In fact, the way it's structured, the core computer science classes are identical, except instead of the 10 free technical electives that come with a normal CS degree, I'm given a pre-selected path of games-specific material ranging from game design workshops to multiplayer games programming.

However, every once in a while I'll question whether I'm pigeonholing myself despite the fact that it's a solid CS degree. I always come back to wanting to do it but I'd rather not be doubting myself on that topic.

So, how does the industry perceive a CS(Games) degree from an accredited and well known university as opposed to a traditional CS degree? I guess I could switch to a traditional CS degree, and make my electives games-focused, so how much weight would having (Games) on my degree carry, and would it potentially hurt me if I wanted to branch into a different IT sector?

- Mark

Edited by Mark Y.

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You need to check that it's a properly recognised degree at the correct level, and not just an associates degree, or a vocational certificate.

If it is, you might be OK. Usually I recommend people steer clear of games degrees, but the degree clearly puts CS first, you can basically tell employers on your resume that it's "computer science with extra modules in games development"... I'd check that though just to make sure I'm not advising you to lie :)

Good Luck in whatever choice you make!

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Thank you :)

I know for a fact it's a regionally accredited bachelors degree, and if I keep my grades up, it should put me on a path to either an MFA in Interactive Media or an MS in Computer Science with a specialization in Games, depending on whether I chose to focus on the tech or creative side. Plus I plan to diversify my curriculum a bit with a minor in either Economics or Screenwriting (I can't really explain why, but I find virtual economies in MMOs really interesting). Not to mention, the faculty is fantastic.

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not only do they have the top game program in the nation

According to...? Lots of schools advertise this. The metrics used vary and are usually bullshit. That's not to say their program isn't worthwhile (I don't know anything about it) but more to caution you that you might be letting yourself get taken in by their marketing material.

Frankly it basically doesn't matter; as a hiring manager I pretty much don't care what the "pedigree" of a game development degree is. If you have one I'm going to treat you differently (not necessarily worse, but I will ask you different questions) than if you have a traditional CS degree, and most of my colleagues would express a similar opinion.

but they're also in LA, which to my knowledge, is one of the largest epicenters of game development in the US.

There are lots of studios in LA. It's also one of the most expensive areas you could pick. I would caution you against choosing the school based on its proximity to where you might want to eventually work. You can always move afterwards, and most game studios will pay to relocate you if they hire you. About the only way going to school near a bunch of studios might benefit you would be potential networking opportunities at local meetups and internship opportunities.

Those can be useful, but you don't need to be in LA for them. I would argue that if you can go to school somewhere else and come out with less debt and/or more savings in the bank, that will be better for you in the long run. Your partial scholarship may help, but make sure to run the numbers. Being debt-free is a phenomenally under-appreciated asset.

So, how does the industry perceive a CS(Games) degree from an accredited and well known university as opposed to a traditional CS degree? I guess I could switch to a traditional CS degree, and make my electives games-focused, so how much weight would having (Games) on my degree carry, and would it potentially hurt me if I wanted to branch into a different IT sector?

As I noted above, I'd ask you slightly different questions mostly aimed at determining if your CS education was fluff or not. Other people may react slightly differently; your biggest problem is going to be with studios large enough to have HR departments that do keyword-like filtering of resumes, who may simply bin yours since it doesn't have "BS Computer Science" on it. There's really nothing you can do about that sort of stupid behavior anyway though, so I wouldn't worry about it.

I don't think the program you are describing sounds like it would have anywhere near the "pigeonholing" concerns you might have with a degree from, say, DigiPen or Full Sail. It's never possible to say with complete generality, but I can tell you that I spent several years working in defense contracting and had no trouble getting that job even though I had a degree from DigiPen.

Edited by Josh Petrie

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USC has a reasonable reputation as far as I know, and since they are a traditional school offering a games tract there's no reason you couldn't *also* take additional electives as you see fit, and if you take enough of them you could even come out with dual degrees. Yes, it'll cost some more money, but if you can take advantage of summers and/or can bare the load of one additional course per semester it won't even cost you any more time. The goal is not to do the minimum you need to get your slip of paper at the end, but to come out the other side well-rounded, capable, and able to continue learning on the job and on your own time.

If your concern is to have a resume where the word "Games" isn't polluting your education line, then you'll need to dual-degree it; but if you just want the knowledge, you could supplement your games courses with free online/MOOC classes -- Stanford offers their entire CS curriculum online for free, IIRC.

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According to...? Lots of schools advertise this. The metrics used vary and are usually bullshit. That's not to say their program isn't worthwhile (I don't know anything about it)

Sorry I should have cited myself there. According to the Princeton Review and PC Gamer (http://www.princetonreview.com/press/game-design-press-release). I wouldn't be seriously considering it if I wasn't sure it was a good school. At risk of sounding pretentious, I'm in the position of deciding between USC and a CS degree at Columbia.

There are lots of studios in LA. It's also one of the most expensive areas you could pick. I would caution you against choosing the school based on its proximity to where you might want to eventually work. You can always move afterwards, and most game studios will pay to relocate you if they hire you. About the only way going to school near a bunch of studios might benefit you would be potential networking opportunities at local meetups and internship opportunities.

I'm aware of it. There were a lot of factors that went into choosing the city I wanted to live in, and I would be lying if I said that the internship potential wasn't one of them. However, I'm from Southern California myself, so part of that decision was also proximity to home as well as the city and campus culture in general. As for cost and loans, I'm lucky enough to be in a position where I don't have to be concerned. With a partial tuition the cost of attendance is a just a few thousand more than a UC, and I've been lucky enough to have parents that are willing to cover those expenses, which I'm extremely grateful for.

As I noted above, I'd ask you slightly different questions mostly aimed at determining if your CS education was fluff or not. Other people may react slightly differently; your biggest problem is going to be with studios large enough to have HR departments that do keyword-like filtering of resumes, who may simply bin yours since it doesn't have "BS Computer Science" on it. There's really nothing you can do about that sort of stupid behavior anyway though, so I wouldn't worry about it.

I don't think the program you are describing sounds like it would have anywhere near the "pigeonholing" concerns you might have with a degree from, say, DigiPen or Full Sail. It's never possible to say with complete generality, but I can tell you that I spent several years working in defense contracting and had no trouble getting that job even though I had a degree from DigiPen.

Thank you for that reassurance. If anything, it gives me a chance to exceed the interviewers expectations, I guess. Keyword filtering shouldn't be a problem though. The degree is formally called BS in Computer Science (Games) and is technically a part of their CS department.

@Ravyne

That's good to know. I think my goal overall is to come out with a well rounded humanities knowledge on top of an engineering degree. As for doing a double major, that's something I'll have to see with my course load. Judging by your response would you say it's favorable to pursue a non-technical degree? I've been wanting to take advantage of their cinema school (:O George Lucas went there)

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(Unfortunately it looks like the recent IGDA site reorganization broke a few of the links.)

As you are young and likely have parents picking up a portion of the cost, I recommend sharing those same set of links with your parents as well.

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That's good to know. I think my goal overall is to come out with a well rounded humanities knowledge on top of an engineering degree. As for doing a double major, that's something I'll have to see with my course load. Judging by your response would you say it's favorable to pursue a non-technical degree? I've been wanting to take advantage of their cinema school ( George Lucas went there)

I wasn't so much talking about an entirely different program -- I mostly meant that it would be relatively easy to take those 10 other electives in addition to the games tract, and then you (should) have both their "regular" CS degree, and their "games" CS degree and you can put both on your resume. Minors in math or physics are also relatively easy to pick up by piggybacking on a CS degree as well, and are seen as a great bonus to anyone hiring CS grads.

But if you want to take unrelated coursework that's great too. Its college -- you'll likely not have the opportunity to devote yourself to your education essentially full-time ever again, so make the most of it. Most game production jobs are fairly siloed as either art or technical, but there are a few jobs that span both, such as the 'technical artist' -- usually this is a person with a background in traditional or digital art and in computer science, but I could see cinematography as a reasonable substitute for the art side -- mostly a technical artist is someone who can help the technical side understand how to support the artistic vision, and help the art side understand the technical limitations and processes, and usually has a role in defining what that balance is, and might contribute to tools the artists use and work closely with graphics programmers. Of course, many games these days also need cinematographers proper, though they don't need the CS background.

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Keyword filtering shouldn't be a problem though

Keyword filtering is always a problem. That's why I mean you shouldn't worry about. For example, HR may be instructed to bin all resumes from <school X> because of bad experiences with prior candidates of <school X> (where, yes, <school X> can be anything - even traditionally "well regarded" schools like MIT; I have seen it done in practice). It's dumb, but in really large places it's seen as a necessary evil... or at least necessary... and really there's nothing you can do about it until you get yourself on the other side of the hiring spectrum and are in a position to tell HR to just let you see every resume and you'll deal with culling them out, thanks very much.

However, I'm from Southern California myself, so part of that decision was also proximity to home as well

That is a good reason to consider the location if that's what you want.

Sorry I should have cited myself there. According to the Princeton Review and PC Gamer (http://www.princetonreview.com/press/game-design-press-release). I wouldn't be seriously considering it if I wasn't sure it was a good school. At risk of sounding pretentious, I'm in the position of deciding between USC and a CS degree at Columbia.

The Princeton Review is basically the textbook definition of "bullshit metric" in this context.

Again, that doesn't mean that the school isn't actually worth attending. It just means the process by which they conduct their rankings is flawed (primarily, they ask the schools themselves) as is the data they gather (post-graduation placement, salary information, et cetera - mostly stuff that makes it easy to draw conclusions -- which are consequently of questionable value given the source data -- and make catchy headlines). It's a bit like trying to measure the productivity of a programmer by how many lines of code he or she writes.

It's generally extremely difficult to report on and track the quality of education provided by an institution, in no small part because of the various subjective factors involved and the difficulty of controlling for particular variables. As a result, most school rankings are based on more-readily-available data in order to simply produce a ranking for the school (in other words the ranking is the goal, not the utility thereof). How quickly graduates get jobs, how much they paid, how many "games" they "ship" before graduation... none of this matters to somebody looking to hire you; what matters is how good you're going to do the job you're being considered for, which is usually a question of how much applicable knowledge or skills you learned or honed over your time in school, which is always going to come down to an individual assessment (the interview) and not some hand-wavy bullshit from the Princeton Review.

EDIT: Also, that press release cites game design, a term which, when used by non-game-developers (and directly related professionals), is usually misused. It's akin to saying that a school is the top school for "makin' stuff, yo."

Edited by Josh Petrie

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I wasn't so much talking about an entirely different program -- I mostly meant that it would be relatively easy to take those 10 other electives in addition to the games tract, and then you (should) have both their "regular" CS degree, and their "games" CS degree and you can put both on your resume. Minors in math or physics are also relatively easy to pick up by piggybacking on a CS degree as well, and are seen as a great bonus to anyone hiring CS grads.

But if you want to take unrelated coursework that's great too. Its college -- you'll likely not have the opportunity to devote yourself to your education essentially full-time ever again, so make the most of it. Most game production jobs are fairly siloed as either art or technical, but there are a few jobs that span both, such as the 'technical artist' -- usually this is a person with a background in traditional or digital art and in computer science, but I could see cinematography as a reasonable substitute for the art side -- mostly a technical artist is someone who can help the technical side understand how to support the artistic vision, and help the art side understand the technical limitations and processes, and usually has a role in defining what that balance is, and might contribute to tools the artists use and work closely with graphics programmers. Of course, many games these days also need cinematographers proper, though they don't need the CS background.

Switching to a standard CS degree and simple taking the games classes as technical electives may be something to look into. From what I know, it's not difficult to switch majors, especially if they're in the same department.

Since most entry-level jobs are fairly siloed, could a dual degree balancing both sides potentially work against me? Or would some studios see it as a possible benefit in the future?

Keyword filtering is always a problem. That's why I mean you shouldn't worry about. For example, HR may be instructed to bin all resumes from <school X> because of bad experiences with prior candidates of <school X> (where, yes, <school X> can be anything - even traditionally "well regarded" schools like MIT; I have seen it done in practice). It's dumb, but in really large places it's seen as a necessary evil... or at least necessary... and really there's nothing you can do about it until you get yourself on the other side of the hiring spectrum and are in a position to tell HR to just let you see every resume and you'll deal with culling them out, thanks very much.

The Princeton Review is basically the textbook definition of "bullshit metric" in this context.

Again, that doesn't mean that the school isn't actually worth attending. It just means the process by which they conduct their rankings is flawed (primarily, they ask the schools themselves) as is the data they gather (post-graduation placement, salary information, et cetera - mostly stuff that makes it easy to draw conclusions -- which are consequently of questionable value given the source data -- and make catchy headlines). It's a bit like trying to measure the productivity of a programmer by how many lines of code he or she writes.

It's generally extremely difficult to report on and track the quality of education provided by an institution, in no small part because of the various subjective factors involved and the difficulty of controlling for particular variables. As a result, most school rankings are based on more-readily-available data in order to simply produce a ranking for the school (in other words the ranking is the goal, not the utility thereof). How quickly graduates get jobs, how much they paid, how many "games" they "ship" before graduation... none of this matters to somebody looking to hire you; what matters is how good you're going to do the job you're being considered for, which is usually a question of how much applicable knowledge or skills you learned or honed over your time in school, which is always going to come down to an individual assessment (the interview) and not some hand-wavy bullshit from the Princeton Review.

EDIT: Also, that press release cites game design, a term which, when used by non-game-developers (and directly related professionals), is usually misused. It's akin to saying that a school is the top school for "makin' stuff, yo."

Good to know. Do you think a strong alumni network might help counter the effect of that in terms of employment opportunities?

And thanks for the heads up. Sometimes I seem to forget the portfolio matters more than the degree.

Edited by Mark Y.

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Do you think a strong alumni network might help counter the effect of that in terms of employment opportunities?

Effect of what? The Princeton review being bullshit? That probably doesn't matter much to your employment opportunities one way or another. If you mean instead the HR filtering problem, there's really nothing to help you there except knowing somebody already at the company who can help you skip the initial HR filter, if it exists. A strong alumni network may help you there, but not likely as much as doing your own networking with industry people would unless that alumni network overlaps heavily with people in the industry.

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Switching to a standard CS degree and simple taking the games classes as technical electives may be something to look into. From what I know, it's not difficult to switch majors, especially if they're in the same department.

Am I missing something? You said that the core CS curriculum is identical except for the difference between taking 10 free CS electives or the 10 pre-chosen games electives -- ergo, if you enroll in one program but also take the 10 different courses from the other program, then you will in effect have both degrees. There is no switching. I would presume that the school will give you both degrees (literally) if you complete it all satisfactorily. There is no 'switching', you just start with one and then do more.

Since most entry-level jobs are fairly siloed, could a dual degree balancing both sides potentially work against me? Or would some studios see it as a possible benefit in the future?

When it comes to skilled work, I've never really heard of being more educated being a problem. You might be perceived as 'overqualified' I suppose, but if that's so clear cut then surely you'll be able to get a presumably better position anyways. Now, if you go into an interview for a technical role, and when they ask about why you took cinematography and suddenly your face lights up and its all you want to talk about, that could cost you that job because they might become concerned you're not in it for the long haul and are really just waiting for a film job to come along -- but there'd be no problem just saying its something you were always interested in and took it mostly for your own enjoyment, usually that kind of initiative is seen as a positive.

I think in general most employers are looking to either fill an immediate need (e.g. they need brains in chairs to do a finite amount of defined work) in which case they only care whether you'll be able to jump in be immediately productive, or they're looking to make a longer-term hire (someone who has a well-rounded base, and can be shaped into more specific roles) in which case they certainly do want you to be well-rounded. Basically, their feeling on your less-related educational experiences is not going to be harmful to you, it's generally a positive if they care at all.

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Do you think a strong alumni network might help counter the effect of that in terms of employment opportunities?

Effect of what? The Princeton review being bullshit? That probably doesn't matter much to your employment opportunities one way or another. If you mean instead the HR filtering problem, there's really nothing to help you there except knowing somebody already at the company who can help you skip the initial HR filter, if it exists. A strong alumni network may help you there, but not likely as much as doing your own networking with industry people would unless that alumni network overlaps heavily with people in the industry.

Yeah I meant the screening problem xD

Switching to a standard CS degree and simple taking the games classes as technical electives may be something to look into. From what I know, it's not difficult to switch majors, especially if they're in the same department.

Am I missing something? You said that the core CS curriculum is identical except for the difference between taking 10 free CS electives or the 10 pre-chosen games electives -- ergo, if you enroll in one program but also take the 10 different courses from the other program, then you will in effect have both degrees. There is no switching. I would presume that the school will give you both degrees (literally) if you complete it all satisfactorily. There is no 'switching', you just start with one and then do more.

Since most entry-level jobs are fairly siloed, could a dual degree balancing both sides potentially work against me? Or would some studios see it as a possible benefit in the future?

When it comes to skilled work, I've never really heard of being more educated being a problem. You might be perceived as 'overqualified' I suppose, but if that's so clear cut then surely you'll be able to get a presumably better position anyways. Now, if you go into an interview for a technical role, and when they ask about why you took cinematography and suddenly your face lights up and its all you want to talk about, that could cost you that job because they might become concerned you're not in it for the long haul and are really just waiting for a film job to come along -- but there'd be no problem just saying its something you were always interested in and took it mostly for your own enjoyment, usually that kind of initiative is seen as a positive.

I think in general most employers are looking to either fill an immediate need (e.g. they need brains in chairs to do a finite amount of defined work) in which case they only care whether you'll be able to jump in be immediately productive, or they're looking to make a longer-term hire (someone who has a well-rounded base, and can be shaped into more specific roles) in which case they certainly do want you to be well-rounded. Basically, their feeling on your less-related educational experiences is not going to be harmful to you, it's generally a positive if they care at all.

They're considered two separate majors, and technically, I could have an almost identical curriculum regardless of the path I pick, in one I'll have (Games) at the end of my Comp Sci degree, in the other I won't.

And thank you, I really appreciate the insight on the hiring aspect :)

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Also, just looked up the school's cost.

For one school year (two semesters) they charge $49,464 for tuition per year. Holy <assorted swearwords>! Are you just picking that because it is the most popular local school? Because that is a really expensive school. Even for a private school that is expensive. For comparison, Harvard is$43,938 in tuition, $5,526 less. MIT is$43,720 for tuition, $5744 less. It is cheaper for you to go to Harvard, Yale, MIT, or assorted other schools well-known for their expense than USC. Are you coming from an extremely wealthy family? We were talking not too long ago about another school that was$19,000 per year, and people were saying that was expensive.

For comparison against my local schools for one year:

University of Utah  $8,240 resident,$26,180 non-resident, per year.

Utah State University $5452 resident,$17,560 nonresident, per year

Weber State University (my own undergraduate school) $4,454 resident,$13,368 nonresident, per year.

You really need to shop around, including shopping around out of state.

The first school on the list, U of U, has a distinguished list of game-technology alumni, such as Pixar's co-founder Ed Catmull of "Catmull-Rom Splines" fame; Nolan Bushnell the founder of Atari and notably the first person to write Pong; Bui Tuong Phong of "Phong Shading"; Henri Gouraud of "Gouraud Shading"; Jim Clark founder of Silicon Graphics and Netscape; Jim Blinn of many graphics systems and books; Jim Kajiya of "The Rendering Equation"; assorted game studio founders, and so on.

It was recently written: “Almost every influential person in the modern computer-graphics community either passed through the University of Utah or came into contact with it in some way.”  So yeah, that is a big school.

Great program, they offer a games-centric cluster of classes in their CS courses, and you can likely attend it for about half the cost of your chosen school even at non-resident rates.

You seriously need to shop around!

Edited by frob
Formatting

Hey Frob,

I completely agree, it's incredibly pricey. As Josh mentioned, it's probably because of it's location in LA. In all honesty, as it were, I wouldn't be able to afford it, but they offered an academic merit scholarship for half tuition, and another $2500 on top of it for research work, which puts the tuition on par with a UC. I mean, I have some fantastic options to choose from, UC Berkeley and UCI, notable for their CS and CS Games programs, respectively, among them. I put USC first due to a variety of factors- proximity to home (close, but not too close), the general campus culture, as well as some other personal reasons. I have no doubt University of Utah has a solid program, in fact to my knowledge it's on par. I just felt more at home in a city like LA. Not to mention some stellar faculty as well. Richard LeMarchand, Tracy Fullerton, and Tom Sloper all teach there, either in graduate or undergraduate courses. If anything, from both a financial perspective and a personal one, I'm fairly certain on USC as a school. I simply wanted to see how much of a difference the physical degree makes, especially from a hiring perspective as well as screening. #### Share this post ##### Link to post ##### Share on other sites Ah, so "only"$22,500 in tuition annually. Again, compared to the <$10k available if you shop around. From the earlier discussion of national costs, the median cost was around$9,000 annually, so about 50% of the schools are well under the \$10k/year cost.

If you willingly take on the debt, I trust that you won't spend your time complaining about it. Even their discounted rate is still more than twice, close to three times, what most schools charge. Don't take that kind of debt lightly.

As an analogue, consider it like a choice between a new high-end Ferrari and a somewhat used Prius. The sports car may give some small amount of prestige the few times it is discussed, but it is far more expensive and somewhat less practical for everyday use. The fancy expensive degree will only be mentioned a few times in your life, and you will be paying a premium for it. If you have the money to spend, that is fine, but just remember that a regular plain old CS degree is more than enough for the job.

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Maybe college has changed a lot since I attended, but it seems if the CS(Games Degree) and the CS(regular) degree have most of the same credit requirements you could just double-major by taking those few extra classes they don't have in common.

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Maybe college has changed a lot since I attended, but it seems if the CS(Games Degree) and the CS(regular) degree have most of the same credit requirements you could just double-major by taking those few extra classes they don't have in common.

That's a thought worth looking into.

Other options would include putting a Game Design Minor with a plain CS degree instead, allowing for greater breadth in Computer Science.

Another would be to simply double-major in CS and Interactive Media, although that comes with increased course load.

I plan to minor in something anyway. I mentioned earlier I was interested in Economic for the purpose of virtual economies, and I've also been looking into a Screenwriting Minor as well.

I guess at that point, my primary concern would be more about eliminating redundancy in my degree title.