Finding an Education in Interactive Media

Since my appearance on Boing Boing Video¹ I’ve been giving a lot more thought about how someone can find the right resources and tools to formulate a curriculum and career in video games. Frankly, it’s not very good. There are an assortment of issues that lead to a drought of resources in deciding an educational path. While the issue is more complicated, I’ve narrowed down the tag line to this statement:

Do you want a job or a career?

A lot of the talk and guidance about video game education is rooted in getting a job with a studio. Yes, being employed is apart of a career and one seeks an education to become employable. I’m not questioning this aspect. What concerns me is the debate is geared towards getting that one job. There isn’t talk about the sustainability for one to adapt though their life time in interactive media. Simply training for getting hired out of college, not as a practitioner of the field.

Part of this comes from the current venues of advice one can seek. Naturally one would look towards the veterans in the industry as cues for being successful. While this advice is very valuable, the material from them seems more about getting the job rather than forming a career. The veterans of this industry created careers in a way that can’t be duplicated; The industry is created now. The experiences of our veterans can’t be duplicated. I wish there were more long-term advice applicable to today, but right now one has to extrapolate how the experience of the vets can be made in current times, and how it can’t. This kind of nuance isn’t realized by a potential applicant from high school, nor is anyone pointing this out. The debate is stuck at ‘get a job,’ not ‘make a living.’

On the academic side, there’s two extremes going on which don’t help anyone. On the traditional academics side: There are individual professors doing great work across many different schools. I’ll name drop my alma mater, Emerson College, but other schools like USC’s Interactive Media program and Michigan State’s Media Arts & Tech program. The problems are trying to advertise these programs. I see a lot of failures from admission offices to assist applicants in informing the program properly. Professors should be working on teaching and leave the admission office to sell the school. This requires the admission office to be knowledgeable about the climate of the academic landscape and how the program they represent etches their unique space. There isn’t much of that going on from my experience. The reasons are varied for each school. Some schools simply have uninformed admission counselors. Some schools don’t want to pitch full-blown game development degrees in fear their program isn’t adequate enough. Great work is being done, but they aren’t informing potential applicants properly.

The other end of the spectrum are establishments that go all-in with video games as their only avenue of training. DigiPen, Full Sail, and schools advertising game production on late-night cable. For the most part, the marketing with these schools fills the void the traditional schools create. A lot of the marketing messages are along the lines of “we only focus on games/media” as to imply liberal art schools set back the student. My biggest fear with these institutions is too much focus on current production tools and methods; Less on forming a background on larger principles that aid in a career. Producing a project soon and often is a sexy selling point, but at what point does it become a cheap thrill at the expense of a lasting education?

At this point I feel I’ve sealed my fate in trying to bring a more substantive debate on what an education in interactive media means. I’m starting with formulating and applying to conduct a lecture at PAX in Seattle. It’s safe to say there will be enough interested people looking to go into higher education in interactive media. My goal is to get these people to ask the right questions to themselves and potential educational institutions. I think it’s an attractive lecture to have, I hope the organizers agree. If it turns out well, I can reprise at PAX East in Boston.

¹ Still waiting for the recording to be released. Will post when this happens.