Games and Academics

For years as I was going through my undergraduate work at Emerson College, the weekly tradition of watching [adult swim] as my weekly fill of television would occasionally be tainted with a certain advertisement. A certain school with a ‘gaming degree program’ spot starts out with the question about why ‘you’ haven’t made your video game yet. Every time this commercial would show up, I would flip off the screen and think to myself “I’M WORKING ON IT!!!”

Academia for the video game industry is a topic rather close to me. It’s safe for me to say that I created a good chunk of Emerson’s program on game design and writing for I had to make it from scratch. I had a make-your-own major that happened to be degree on the books. Course, I was the first to actually go for a BFA in New Media and to create a curriculum based on design and writing of interactive storytelling. At the time, there wasn’t a convincing curriculum that attracted to me, so making my own program was the only way I could be satisfied.

As to why I’m taking education as my first major post on my Media Blog, it’s the way in which one creates media, in this case video games, that makes my connection. Yea justification!There are many issues college with the in interactive electronic entertainment. These problems are shared between the educational institutions, the commercial electronic games industry, the students, and academic/admission counselors. It takes years for academia to figure out good methods of teaching any subject matter. Only with a careful dance between the industry itself and the academic world can a solid curriculums be formed. Without some form of industry involvement, students will not be properly prepared for the industry. Too much industry involvement and the school produces one-trick ponies.

But what defines the difference? There are obvious bad programs (hint: they air TV ads), but how can we begin to calculate a quality school? No school will be perfect, but what model should students be looking for? The first thing that comes to mine is the scope of the program:

A Game Production Curriculum is not contained in one program.

Let’s say I walked outside and asked random people on the street the following question:

List as many different roles or jobs involved in creating a movie.

I would gather that the list would be a decent size; At least 10 or so. After that, I ask this question:

List as many different roles or jobs involved in creating a video game.

They may only be one position given: Programmer. Other positions, not so much. While this is a larger problem involving credit titles and general impression of the industry itself, the idea of programmer as the soul creator is obviously misguided. This was true in the 80’s where one (usually a) man developed the entire game besides box art. This is clearly not the case.

So when you see a curricula advertised as ‘The game degree’, that’s a red flag right there. Very broadly, there are many areas involved in producing one title:

  • Producing, Directing, etc
  • Writing / Design
  • Art Production
  • Sound Production
  • Programming

While someone working in this industry must have a basic understanding of each area, there are ultimately a point where one must pick one or two focuses. No one program can contain expertise in more than one of these fields. Proficiency yes, but not expertise. This is the hard part in education; Picking a dedicated path. Once you get exposed to other things, students may find that while they wanted to be one thing when they started, they actually were geared towards another area completely. This is where the proficiency aspect comes in. Exposing a student to the other fields at a basic level not only helps the student understand the other aspects of the media, but proposes the opportunity of a different direction.

Art vs. Tech

The unique aspect about video games is the marriage between the artistic and technological. This media is not at the point where producing a text is easy. Currently, anyone can make a film. You only need to look at YouTube to see this. The technology of cameras, audio equipment, and editing tools are simple enough to use with the board understanding of storytelling using moving pictures. Interactive media? Not even close. The technology bar is very high in comparison to other media, so there’s a odd dance between the artistic and the technological.

Even for film, the ease of production wasn’t easy as it is now. Over the course of time, not only the tools but the understanding of the media have evolved. Video games are still in an infancy where development isn’t as easy, nor is the understanding of our media as widely established. Because of this, the amount of work involved in education requires separate areas of study.

My time at Emerson College was almost primarily on the art side. With exceptions of solid classes of 3D Animation by John Craig Freeman, my undergraduate work consisted of academic study of media crit and design/writing of interactive media, but completely divorced of rich technical background. I knew this entering in the program and it’s what I wanted. My technical background has been self-taught and worked very well. Not adequate enough for a career in programming, but programming has never been my intent of a career path.

Seg’s View of a quality educational environment for interactive media

At this point, I can not see a quality academic institution that does not carry both artistic based programs and technical based programs. While there are rare exceptions, not all techies are quality designers, not all designers are quality techies. Nor should they be. An institution needs to recognize this by providing a set of curriculum programs with the connectivity between the different areas.

Let’s take a larger university as my example which I’ll call ‘College University’. College U has an existing program in Computer Science, audio/radio production, fine art (3D animation included), TV and/or film programs, and creative writing. These parts can contribute to a whole without much tweaking in most cases. And in most cases, there are specialization that already exist. What if we were to add specialization on each of these areas towards interactive entertainment?

For the CS department, a focus along the lines of ‘Entertainment Programming’ focus on graphics, sound, and interface technology that are applicable to working on game engines. 3D animation focusing on low-poly and creating works that plug into a game engine rather than a cohesive movie. And so on. No need for a new department, no need to have a completely separate island just because ‘games are in’.

There’s one issue to draw here and that’s creating a cohesiveness between the departments. There still needs to be some centered home for being able to connect all the different parts together and stimulate cross-department development. Ideally, the students should be working together in their different fields but be able to work together as a whole. Obviously the starting point is with a practicum style class that charges students to make one unified project. The result of a group of students pointing to one sizable project is much better than one student putting a project together ¹. This alone doesn’t solve the issues however. A collaborative effort must start from the first semester and focus on team-building skills and stay away from lone-wolf projects. Leaving the group work to advanced level work only hurts everyone. To be blunt, you want to kick out the individuals who don’t work well with others earlier than later.

So far the only program I see towards this goal is USC Interactive Media Division. Almost a year ago I applied to this program for the above reason. I ended up not attending since I landed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work for Telltale, but while I had sever reservations about the larger USC institution, I heard nothing but positive aspects of the IMD. But we need more than one school and a series of specialized schools (DigiPen, DeVry, etc) to fill this void.

Moving Forward

This post was getting long so I didn’t cover my total analysis of other schools in similar fields. But I want to hear what everyone else thinks about the educational world of interactive entertainment. It’s not a topic covered too much, so let’s change that!I guess this is also a good point for you to check out the about page for a bit of disclosure. Mainly around the fact that I worked at Emerson College in enrollment after I graduated.

¹ I wasn’t completely alone and in debt to the wonderful people who did help me out. I am referring to the lack of support in engine building and what injured the project as a whole.