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Sep 16, 2011



You'll wish you had psychology, writing, marketing, management, and the humanities.

And then with that knowledge realise that you probably shouldn't work in video games because it is an industry that largely apes how other media industries work whilst failing to abide by basic employment law, any kind of solid marketing strategies and what seems to be an absolute disregard for how retail and consumers work. There's also virtually no job security and (with few exceptions) your entire company will live and die by the latest game.


Agree 100%... if you want to train to code game servers, and only code servers, maybe you should just learn how to code game servers. But if you want to design games, you really ought to be very curious about a whole bunch of things. If you're not, you probably won't make very interesting games. Just take a look at some of the leading figures in the industry -- they're deeply curious about everything. I'm not sure that someone like that *needs* a liberal education to do what they do, but I can't imagine someone like that wouldn't *want* to get a liberal education.


And I agree with Cunzy -- on top of that, I think you have to be sort of crazy / in love with games. :-)


You have to be and it would be a shame if some of that crazy was to disappear at all. Or if, god forbid, games became political products and game designers became celebrities. The Games industry seem to be a bit like Toon Town. Fun to visit but GOD FORBID you ever had to live/work there.


Well, yes. Philosophy helps you keep it all in perspective, doesn't
it. I kind of feel like the football coach saying "You have to be
prepared for the day when your football playing days are done."


I agree in principle, that game design would benefit from cross-disciplinary training, but I don't think it would work logistically. I mean, psychology, sociology, philosophy, etc are all insanely complex topics - how would you decide which bits are useful enough to teach, bearing in mind that it would involve dropping a more traditional game design class?

If anything, I think it would be better to give students experience in working with cross-disciplinary teams, rather than letting them think they can do it all themselves. Help them learn the strengths and weaknesses of their own specialties, and what they can gain or contribute to a more diverse working ecosystem.


I wonder how possible it is to self-educate in some of these. A couple of years ago Raph Koster pointed me to Cialdini's Influence and since then I've read other books in that vein (currently reading Predictably Irrational).

Is that enough?

Possibly it's only of value to me as I'm predisposed towards their basic message, a predisposition that might be overcome in more conventionally minded students by a formal class structure.


This is a good point. One issue I had with the original essay was
the stance that college teaches the student. The college can't teach
you anything that you don't care about learning. College only helps
you learn things that you have decided to learn. College is not a
school, it's a huge hands-on tutorial. Passive students learn next
to nothing. Active students change their lives.


Exactly -- which is why (to digress just a bit) schools should be focusing on enabling students to learn what they want to learn and what they can use rather than getting them to, e.g., score higher on the SATs and other standardized tests. Especially given the massive disruption we've seen in access to knowledge (today the Internet offers *incredible* resources to self-teach), the old model of top-down education is doing us a disservice. So sending game designers to college isn't about teaching them particular skills, it's about exposure to new ideas, teaching them how to learn, and interacting with people who have (or are gaining) expertise in various areas.


I've had this argument with a faculty advisor who wouldn't let her student take my "Games and Culture" class, insisting that she needed programming languages, not "theory."

My counter-argument (and the student's) was that she was never going to be a code monkey, but was already a designer and entrepreneur, and to be successful, needed a deep understanding of how games and culture create and reflect each other (and of the vast range of games and mechanics across history) more than how to code scoring systems in Flash.

We lost that one - and I think our "Arts, Media and Engineering" program may be doing a disservice to our students.


A bit of it is character building too. A good college will try to get you the broadest exposure around the core fundamentals. A good student will suck it up and learn topics that they originally didn't have a passing interest in.

Those that get through the hard times are less adverse to expanding their horizons when out in the real world. And they can better handle the 'boring' tasks that invariably come up during work.


"There's also virtually no job security and (with few exceptions) your entire company will live and die by the latest game."

Huh? Poetry, writing, theater, music, television, film ... pretty much any creative media in history. There will be van Goghs but there will be more Picasso's and Mary Cassatts. You do know that Philip Glass worked for years as a non-union plumber before he became PHILIP GLASS.

If you need security there are degrees in instruction design and library and information studies all over the place.


If we are talking about game -design,- coding is not irrelevant but hardly central. It's useful to know how to program, mainly so you can talk to programmers and understand their concerns, but that's not what a game designer does.

Similarly, it's not a bad idea for a game designer to know something about graphic design, information architecture, and 3D modelling, so they can talk intelligently to artists and UI people, but it's not what a game designer does.

Here's what a game designer does: Synthesize a body of knowledge, which might simply be a cultural phenomenon like, say, mecha anime, or might be something as abstruse as the history of tetrapodal evolution; look for systems to evoke something of the aesthetic, feel, or underlying causes of that phenomenon; construct rules that embody that system; work collaboratively with artists, programmers, and producers to architect that system; and iteratively refine it.

Critical skills for a game designer include math, at least through introductory calculus, and beyond does not hurt; a systems approach to understanding things that can best be explored through disciplines like economics, history, and physics; and the ability to write clear and coherent prose, which may perhaps be learned better through courses in journalism than through writing programs that emphasize fiction. Of course, it is also useful for a game designer to understand story, which can best be obtained through courses in literary writing.

It is also essential for a game designer to have a broad understanding of the enormous possibility space of "the game," which can best be obtained by playing lots of games, of lots of different types. I've encountered few courses that do this -- that, in essence, provide a survey of games, an "art history course for games," if you will (and would love to teach such a course).

Since so many of the games we create are based on popular culture of one kind or another, it also does not hurt to have deep familiarity with film, comics, literary science fiction and fantasy, anime, manga, popular music, etc.

Specific knowledge that may be useful is hard to predict ahead of time; one game project required me to become highly knowledgeable about vertebrate evolution, another about theme park design. What needs inculcating is habits of thought, and the ability to learn rapidly.

The broadest possible education, in both the sciences and the humanities, is desirable. A vocational approach may work for narrow skills, but game design is not narrow; it is broad.


You can teach people game design, but you can't teach them to become game designers. All you can do with game designers is help them get to where they're going quicker than if they were left to their own devices.


Richard, could you expand on that because it seems an unlikely proposition.

If the qualities of a game designer are essentially a certain analytical outlook can't that be taught? We can after all teach people to be musicians or creative writers.

If you're saying that we are not currently teaching this I can believe that. But impossible? Aren't there excellent game designers around today who were taught game design when they started working in the industry? At Blizzard for instance they seem to be able to lose whole generations of talented designers and go on to produce very good games (arguably better than most competitors). How did their new people learn if not in-house?

I'm thinking it ties in with something Greg wrote a few years ago on the need for games criticism.

Perhaps we need to articulate what makes a good game better before we can teach game-making.


My $0.02: Part of it is process, specifically, getting people to
iterate quickly and exhaustively. Go through a million prototypes
and tests. Another part may be, just because game design is an art
(granting Richard that point), still, there are techniques to art.
Brush strokes, the science of color and light, all that. What are
the techniques of game design? It seems to me that you could teach

In our program I focus a whole lot on process. As for technique, I'm
still think about it. Social science is my particular hammer, so
I'll probably end up assuming this is a social science-y nail. The
techniques of game design are methods for creating the individual
hedonic states (psychology) and the social equilibria (econ, poli
sci, soc, anthro) that the designers wants.


Stabs>If the qualities of a game designer are essentially a certain analytical outlook can't that be taught? We can after all teach people to be musicians or creative writers.

We can teach people to be technicians, that's true enough. We can also teach people to create-to-formula. However, we can't teach people to become what they're not. What we can do is help people discover if game design is their medium of expression, and, if so, teach them what they would otherwise have had to discover on their own.

>Aren't there excellent game designers around today who were taught game design when they started working in the industry?

Yes, but for every one of those how many other people were taught game design who didn't make it?

>How did their new people learn if not in-house?

They did learn in-house. However, they had to be game designer material in the first place.

>Perhaps we need to articulate what makes a good game better before we can teach game-making.

That would certainly help. We also need to define "game" and "good" of course.

For some time now, I've been hoping someone would set up the game equivalent of film's Cahiers du Cinéma, in which game designers could write essays about game design and thrash out some of the issues between themselves. At the moment, there's no real theory to game design, just a lot of practice and some associated ideas that aren't really written down.



So true,

A liberal arts education makes the world such a richer place to live in. Art history, architecture, phyisics(some basic statics is as start) and philosphy.. rhetoric, in addition to those you've mention. Learn at least one foreign language to break your mind into a different cultural perspective that you notice in learning other cultures idioms and situational choices to use the subjunctive and reflexive tenses.

Getting ahead is often about being well adjusted and I think being broadly educated can help that a bit... then again guys that work like dogs and have big ego's seem to do ok too....i'm not sure they're every really comfortable though


Thank you very much Richard, food for thought.


While I have a feeling this post made the day of a Liberal Arts major somewhere, I think if you really want to get to the heart of things, courses in Common Sense, People Skills, and Critical Thinking would be much more prudent. I hear the School of Hard Knocks has a great curriculum if anyone is looking for a place to apply to.


So, as a philosophy BA (and Hard Knocks grad) in my mid-30s with experiences and interests in a huge variety of areas who is currently applying to MFA Game Design programs, should I be thrilled, scared, discouraged, apprehensive, or all of the above at my prospects for the future?

I'm thrilled that you all (some of whom I've corresponded with previously) are talking about this topic, but I'm not sure what the takeaway is. To be clear, I'm looking at programs mostly as an door into the industry and a way to make connections for a future career as a game designer -- I currently live in a part of the Midwest distant from the hot spots of the industry and although I can blog about game design it has failed to get me a job (so far, anyway).

Sorry for not getting in on the discussion earlier, I took the GRE a week or so ago and preparation for it ate up almost all the time I had to spend researching sites like this one.


Andy, the message I'm getting from the discussion is that the
details of a formal education are less critical than your attitude
and general strategy. First, you should have a broad base of
knowledge, be a citizen and scholar of the world. Second, you should
be familiar with technical skills like coding, digital audio, 3D
animation. Third, you should have deep expertise at communication,
like, technical writing. But in the end, people in the industry
mostly want to know what you have done. What's in your portfolio?

From your background, it sounds like you have the general background
stuff in pretty good shape. Now you need to make games and get
experience in the central skills. Therefore you should use your grad
school years to lead teams of people to make finished, polished,
industry-grade games. 


Thanks, Edward. I very much appreciate your reply, and your advice sounds very solid and actionable.


to be honest with you,when i was kid,i also want to make video games,but then i realized,it was much fun playing it than making it.

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