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  • Ask the Experts: Are Online Game Schools Bunk?

    [11.03.08]
    - Jill Duffy
  •  Dear Experts,
    I'm researching schools for getting into the game industry. My passion is for creation and I would like to be a game designer. Looking around online, I've read mixed reviews of gaming colleges such as Art Institute, Westwood, and Devry. Some say developers will laugh in your face when you apply with a game school's degree (especially one online which is my only option of getting). Others say that it's an acceptable method.

    I need to know if I am making a mistake by applying to these schools to be a game designer one day. Bear in mind, I'm in the military, so funding isn't as rough for me. Thank you.
    Cautious Learner


    Dear Cautious Learner,

    Ever since I started following the game development education industry (early 2004), the single biggest change I've noticed is in the reputations and opinions of game schools. Five years ago, game schools were almost universally pooh-poohed. Now, they are regarded by students, educators, and hiring managers in the game industry, much more for their own merits (and demerits) than for the company they keep.

    That's the long way of saying, "They don't all suck, but each one must be judged on its own."

    In my opinion, there are two ways to really judge whether you -- and I mean you, specifically, Cautious Learner -- want to attend a particular school. First, ask yourself, "Will attending the program help me attain my goals?" a question that requires you to first get very clear about what your goals are. I'm under the assumption that the educational path you're looking for is slightly vocational. That is to say, you want to pursue this educational path not for the broad education, but to get a leg up in career placement. I would make this kind of assumption for anyone who already has a bachelor's degree or a combination of some education and training (in your case, in the military). I recommend that you write down your goals. Writing them down will help you work out precisely and clearly what it is you hope to do, which is especially important when pursuing online education. Online learning tends to be more self-guided than in-class learning, so it's extremely important that you make no bones about what you want to accomplish and that you have your own method for measuring whether and how you've achieved those accomplishments.

    The second way you can judge whether an online program is any good is by its students and their output. Different programs suit different kinds of people. If you talk to students who are perfectly content in a particular online program, who feel they are accomplishing the things they set out to do, but who praise the program in ways you would not ever imagine yourself to do, then be wary. For instance, I know exactly what kind of learning environment I personally thrive in: classroom situations that focus on discussion and lecture rather than group collaborations. So even if eight people at University X Online praise the program resoundingly, if their praises rest on things like having the freedom to pursue any project of their choosing, or independent study, then I still know it's not right for me. I also know that I personally like to compartmentalize my activities, so showing up in a classroom from 6:30 to 9:30 every Monday night works great for me because it allows me to create a time and space where learning happens, which is something I need.

    On the other hand, some people learn best when they are in the comfort of their own homes with an internet connection at hand and the television set on, leading them to explore ideas and connect seemingly unconnected things, spurred by the feedback all around them (I have a friend who wrote an entire academic book while watching Lifetime movies; I can't even write this column unless I turn off all other distractions).

    If you find a school in which the successful and happy students seem to have the same learning style as you, take a look at what they are producing. Game development education tends to be product-based. (Product-based assessment is when instructor grade students on what they've made, whereas process-based grading is when instructors grade based on the student's approach to creation, their thinking process and rationalization, rather than the work itself. Instructors can also use a combination of the two, or they might use portfolio-based assessment, which judges not only the total body of works produced, but the student's growth from one work to the next.) Are students from the school winning game development student awards? Are they being nominated for the Independent Games Festival? Do they have thousands of online users going to their sites to play their games?

    The two most important things to consider are your goals and your learning styles. (Also see "Ask the Experts: The Advantages and Disadvantages of Game School," September 10, 2007.)

    But Really, Do Online Game Schools Suck?

    Some people are going to disagree with me strongly for writing this but, of all the kinds of education available to aspiring game developers, online game schools have the lowest reputation. That doesn't mean they are uniformly bad, and it doesn't mean that they can't help you reach your specific goals (again, but sure you know exactly what your goals are before diving headlong into one). But by and large, if you ask anyone to rank game education programs, the online schools will be shuffled quickly to the bottom half.

    That said there are some equally poorly regarded physical schools, which shall remain nameless.

    Take the time to know what your goals are. Take the time to figure out what you want to accomplish (presumably, getting a job) versus what smaller accomplishments you need to have en route to getting there. Take the time to talk to many students and find out not only whether they like the program they're in, but why. The most important judgment of a school is your own. Having that kind of conviction will take you farther in the game industry than having someone else tell you which school is perceived as being the most prestigious.

    Good luck and best wishes.

    Jill Duffy is editor of GameCareerGuide.com and senior contributing editor of Game Developer magazine. She is also the content manager of the Game Career Seminar, a series of live lectures and workshops.

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