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  • Extract: Breaking Into The Game Industry

    [08.16.11]
    - Ian Schreiber and Brenda Brathwaite

  • Question: Is a graduate degree (such as an MFA or Ph.D.) useful for getting a job in the game industry?

    Ian: It depends-useful for what?

    In grade school, your education is well-rounded, as you take a variety of courses that give a thin foundation in just about everything. As an undergraduate at a liberal-arts university, you grow this foundation with general education courses, and also for the first time, you start specializing in one area (this is your "major"). A Master's degree (such as an MA or MS) makes this specialty deeper. A "terminal degree" (MFA or Ph.D.) brings you right up to the boundary of the field, and earning this degree involves contributing to the field by stretching or advancing it beyond where it was previously. This is a profound experience that leaves one changed for life. In the sense that you will never see the world in quite the same way, graduate degrees are useful for changing how you think. But that is probably not what you wanted to know.

    If your career plans involve not just working in the game industry, but eventually entering academia and becoming a university or college-level teacher yourself, a graduate degree is eventually going to become a necessity for you. Most schools are accredited, which is what gives their degree any kind of meaning; accreditation requires, in most cases, that the people teaching all have advanced degrees. Therefore, an awful lot of schools that might otherwise love to hire you will not even let you apply if you're lacking this degree. For this career path it is not only useful, it's critical.

    But of course, this is a book about the game industry. Is a graduate degree useful for getting a job working at a game company? The answer, as with most everything: "It depends." The game industry is largely a meritocracy; people do not care about your title or degree nearly as much as your ability to contribute to making a great game. If you find a program that will have you making great games or learning how to make better ones, in the long run this will be useful to you, and I know of plenty of students with advanced degrees who have jobs in the industry. That said, if you are merely going to graduate school as a way of "hiding" from the world because you are afraid your skills aren't good enough . . . well, let's just say, be prepared to justify your decision in an interview if you're asked why you went to graduate school instead of making games.

    Brenda: See what I said in Question 3 with this one caveat: A graduate degree gives you a controlled opportunity to spend a long period of time on a single project. So does the game industry.

    David McDonough (2008, Producer, Firaxis Games): It can be, but it's certainly not a guarantee. An undergraduate degree is usually advisable for any kind of advanced field, including game development. A graduate degree is a much more specific course of study, and in many cases, may not provide more value toward making yourself ready to join the professional industry. But it can provide you a great deal, if you get into it for the right reasons.

    Graduate programs are intense, accelerated, and highly tailored to the individual student. They usually focus on preparing the student for more advanced study, research, or teaching in the field at the college level. This kind of study doesn't always overlap with the kind of professional skill training you would want to get noticed by a professional game company. A couple extra years of study in college can mean more time for you to hone those skills or develop yourself toward becoming an attractive potential hire, but those years could also be well spent working up from a lower-level position in a game company, gaining valuable experience and on-the-job training. University programs can only approximate the real industry, and in the end, there's no substitute for active employment to teach you the trade and help you build your professional game development career.

    However, a game development professorship can be an attractive alternative to the professional industry. Many game developers have found the academic world to be fertile ground for exploring the art and craft of game development without the industry's commercial focus or pressures. And with the explosion of game departments in colleges around the world, there's an ever-growing demand for new college professors. If you're at all interested in becoming a professor, seeking a graduate degree is vital to opening up that career path.

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