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  • Postmortem: Getting the Degree

    - Dan Carreker
  •  The decision to get a degree in Game Arts and Design was one that came about somewhat unexpectedly. Originally, I had been studying programming at a community college when I had the opportunity to interview at one of the largest video game publishers in the U.S. Gaming had always been a passion of mine and I immediately accepted a QA position when they offered it to me.

    The job was fantastic even with its long hours. It took up to five hours a day to get back and forth to work through the Los Angeles bumper-to-bumper traffic, but that was a small sacrifice for the chance to start working in the industry. Soon, I found myself earning more responsibilities, and the opportunity to provide creative input into the development process. Of course, this meant making an even bigger time commitment to the company, and it became obvious that there was no way to continue my schooling and still apply myself fully to the job. I made what was for me an easy decision: I withdrew from my college classes.

    It was the right choice; I gained an incredible amount of knowledge about the industry and was able to see game development from the inside. Within a couple of years, though, my responsibilities had begun to drift away from making creative contributions to the projects. I realized that if I wanted to be involved more directly in making games, it would require me to change my career path.

    I began interviewing for new positions but discovered that, while my experience was helpful, it wasn't specific enough for the positions I wanted. Recruiters were looking for evidence that I could handle the responsibilities of the new job, and without having worked directly with developers the only alternative was a college education. I decided I needed to return to school and earn a degree.

    What Went Right

    1. Getting the degree.

    Many of the people who had entered the industry before I did had come in through varied and sometimes unorthodox means. At that time, there had been no standard path to breaking in; instead the important thing was just getting a job - any job - within a gaming company. Stories of custodial workers who joined design teams or receptionists who created levels in their spare time were often repeated.

    However, by the time I joined the industry, game companies were just finishing their transitioning from small businesses into multi-million dollar corporations. As this transformation occurred, companies' hiring practices changed as well, becoming more traditional. They implemented dedicated human resource departments, hiring standards, and job requirements. Many of the jobs began listing a degree as preferred, if not required. 

    Getting a degree makes sense, regardless of the industry it's for. The U.S. Census Bureau's figures show that in 2008, employees with a bachelor degree earned about 180% more than those with only a high school diploma1.

    There are also the opportunities for career advancement that a post-secondary education presents, and evidence indicates that the more educate a person is, the better financial choices she or he tends to make. In addition, a degree shows potential employers that the applicant not only has received at least a fundamental amount of training but that he or she can follow through with long- term commitments, such as finishing college.

    Originally, I returned to community college to finish off my Associate's Degree. Having a stronger idea of how I wanted to contribute to the game creation process, I shifted from programming to the arts. In order to develop my writing and directing skills I began focusing on theater and film courses and was considering going to film school for my bachelor's degree.

    Just before graduating from community college, however, a former co-worker informed me he had been hired to teach programming and game design at a local four-year college. The school had developed a strong reputation for their Media Art program and was now branching out into a Game Arts and Design program. He went with me to the campus and I checked it out, asked questions, and did some research. After evaluating it, I made the decision and enrolled.

    2. Exposure to a variety of disciplines.

    One of the deciding factors for choosing to attend the school was the variety of successful programs they had already built. Besides the school's Media Arts program, which had placed students in some very impressive film and television studios, their Computer Information System program was strong, and they were also experiencing success with their business and telecommunication programs. It was the potential for a well-rounded education and their ability to have a multi-disciplinary approach which was a major attraction for me.

    A central philosophy of the school was that, regardless of your discipline, an understanding of the collaborative nature of game creation was extremely beneficial to the students. Everyone learned, to some degree or another, programming, modeling, animation, audio design, etc. This allowed students to explore a variety of skill sets and discover talents they had been unaware of.

    I saw 3D modelers amaze themselves when they found they had a knack for coding, or level designers who had hated English in high school become enthralled with the creative writing process. Even in areas they were not extremely proficient in, the students learned to understand the process and how to communicate efficiently with team members in that discipline.

    There were also students who were unsure what specific area they wanted to get into, they just knew they wanted to work in gaming. One of the advantages of having such a variety of disciplines being presented throughout their studies was it gave them the opportunity to explore many different facets of the industry. They were allowed to discover which area their talents and skills best fit and to make their decisions based on this exposure, and not on the hype.

    1US Census Press Release, "Census Bureau Releases Data Showing Relationship
    Between Education and Earnings." April 27, 2009. US Census Bureau. May 3, 2009


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