Schooling Game Programmers: Specialized Degrees vs. Computer Science

- Marie Ferrer

To become a programmer in the video game industry, there are two major educational paths: earning a computer science degree from a traditional university and earning a degree from a game-specific school. While computer science programs at traditional four-year universities remains highly regarded, game-specific programs at places like DigiPen Institute of Technology, Full Sail Real World Education, or The Guild Hall at Southern Methodist University are growing, both in their popularity and in their credibility.

When choosing between these two types of programs, students should consider their own learning styles and preferences, future and short-term goals, cost, and greater academic plan. Both academic routes can get you a job in the game industry, but what you'll have to do to get there will vary.

Advantages of a Conventional Computer Science Department
The biggest advantage of enrolling in a conventional computer science program is that it's offered at almost all universities and colleges. Students can choose between many different places to study and aren't limited to only a few schools. Although the program requirements vary from school to school, the core of the curriculum is typically a solid sequence of computer science theory.

Another advantage of a computer science degree program is that, at the undergraduate level, it does not focus solely on each student's area of concentration, but rather requires students to study a range of topics, both within their field and outside it. "Gen eds" (general education, or courses required for graduation) typically include science, math, foreign language, literature and composition, and history. With a wide array of courses, a student receives a well-rounded education.

Some universities offer degree programs that differ slightly. At Carnegie Mellon University, for example, the computer science program includes a required minor in a second subject. Upper division courses in math and physics can be added to complete the minor, which would benefit a potential game programmer immensely.

If a university's curriculum doesn't include game programming per se, students often have the opportunity to work on games if they so choose, perhaps to fulfill a project, or perhaps as independent study. Students might also choose to take related courses, such as computer graphics, artificial intelligence, and human-computer interaction, as they all relate directly to game programming.

While computer science curricula include a great deal of theory, students are usually given opportunities to apply that knowledge. Lab sessions, for example, are a typical requirement of computing courses. Some schools also offer co-operative work placement terms where the student spends a few semesters working at a company and the rest of the time attending classes. Summer internships are another way students can gain valuable hands-on experience. Furthermore, undergraduate students who are interested in research are generally well supported at universities that have a graduate school, where professors and graduate students are required to conduct research, sometimes with funding for undergraduate assistants.

Four-year university proponents claim that a more conventional education is more likely to equip students with broader knowledge and life skills that can be applied to different work settings, rather than just game development. While not all game-specific schools teach so narrowly as to rule out other career opportunities, traditional university graduates certainly have the advantage of not having to explain themselves if they wind up working in a field other than game development.

Graduates leave university with not only a higher education, but also certain soft skills, such as critical thinking and analysis. Small studios that tend to hire university graduates over game school graduates usually do so because of these more transferable skills. There is a difference, they might argue, between someone who has churned out code for two years and someone who has studied computer
science for four.

Universities remain highly respected institutions because of their long-standing reputation. Carnegie Mellon University, for example, founded one of the first computer science departments back in 1965. Since then, it has become a world leader in research and education, and its commitment to research translates into hiring and keeping top-rate professors, thus keeping strong its high regard.

Computer Science: Disadvantages
Conventional computer science programs, as mentioned, do require students to study a variety of subjects, from arts and humanities to math and science. For students who are eager to learn marketable skills quickly or who have already completed a bachelor's degree, this can be seen as a disadvantage. And not every student will take a summer co-op or internship, and they will be at a distinct disadvantage to others who do get work or research experience.

Other students who aren't strong in non-science based courses may find it difficult to balance their time studying, wishing that they had more time to complete the coursework that's more important to them. Still other students might find the more advanced computer science topics too demanding and not relevant enough to games.

Although computer science course at traditional universities are rich in theory, game-bound students might view the many hours spent in lecture hall sapping time that could be spent learning by doing. (Game specific schools, on the other hand, tend to maximize the number of hours students spend actively programming, meeting with their development teams, or otherwise interacting with students participating in hands-on work.)

Finally four-year universities simply don't appeal to everyone. Individuals who have already completed a degree may be better served in a program that adds new knowledge only in a specialized field. Some students simply don't learn well from lectures, but easily absorb information when faced with hands-on problem solving. And while some students do best in clearly directed or guided learning environments, others thrive in independent learning scenarios (like the kind online learning provides); still others do their best when working with a group of peers.

Game Programming: Advantages
The advantages of attending a game specific program, such as DigiPen, Full Sail, and The GuildHall at Southern Methodist University, start with the material taught. These institutions offer a curriculum that's designed to prepare the student for a future in the video game industry.

Similar to a university degree program, a post-secondary institution specializing in game development usually teaches a broad foundation in math, physics, and computer science. However, these programs tend to teach less theory than a four-year university, but more application -- and the application is always pertinent to games. Game-development schools take pride in the fact that they prepare students to start contributing immediately to a game team once hired, instead of waiting for on-the-job training.

The real-time interactive simulation program at DigiPen is one example. It includes a variety of individual and group projects that expose the student to the entire game's lifecycle. In addition to completing semester- and year-long projects, some DigiPen students also apply their learning by teaching at DigiPen's Summer Workshop program, or by pursuing an internship at a local game development studio.

Game-specific institutions often have explicit relationships with local game development companies, another advantage for students. Graduates of DigiPen, based in Redmond, Wash., have gone on to work at nearby companies like Amaze Entertainment, Microsoft, and Nintendo of America. DigiPen hosts a Career Day, when representatives from the local game community are invited to visit the school, meet the students, and review their work.

Full Sail, another game institution, also gives its game development students the advantage of applying their theoretical knowledge in a game environment. The final project involves five months of building a game in a team of programmers, artists, and designers. All the students can then credit a finished game on their resumes.

Another advantage of a game development program is its faculty typically count a number of industry professionals among them. Their involvement with and direct knowledge of the game industry make them valuable resources in the classroom (and noteworthy references on later job applications). These industry-insiders can also help students begin networking in the game industry.

Students looking to transfer into the video game industry from another field, or after completing an undergraduate degree elsewhere, might consider enrolling in a master#39;s degree program. The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University caters particularly well to this sort of student. Since June 2003, The Guildhall has been offering a program in computer science that is similar to the undergraduate programs at DigiPen and Full Sail but at a graduate level. Ron Jenkins, deputy director of development and external affairs at The Guildhall says the program is a result of the institution's belief that "professional development education" should only come after general undergraduate education. quot;It is essential students get a broad base undergraduate degree or have industry experience before they begin," he says. Graduates are then well prepared to become valuable members of a game development team. And because the placement rate for programming graduates at The Guildhall is 100 percent, students are able to do just that upon graduation.

Another advantage of game-specific schools is that they generally offer shorter programs, which lets students enter the industry quicker. In addition to its master's program, Guildhall offers a five-year program, which combines a BS in computer science with a master's degree. Although the real-time interactive simulation program at DigiPen is a four-year program, the Full Sail game development degree takes only 21 months.

Game Programming: Disadvantages
Although computer science programs are available at many traditional universities, there are fewer schools that offer a degree in game programming specifically. This can be a disadvantage for students who must relocate out of state or country and can add significantly to the cost. Though tuition at game programming schools is usually the same for all U.S. students regardless of their state of residency, but can be significantly higher for foreign students.

Additionally, the intensity of a game-specific program may deter some students from completing it. These programs usually run at an accelerated pace and contain a heavy course load. The combined stress and time required to meet project deadlines, complete all the coursework, and maintain a passing grade point average may be too much for some students, particularly those with other commitments, such as children, a significant other, or a job.

The material included in the game-specific program is almost entirely focused on game-related areas. Students might study subjects only within their field or ones that are closely related, though not all game institutions stick to this regiment; DigiPen's computer engineering course, for example, requires undergraduate to take two mandatory English courses plus five additional elective credits in English. Even with a few English or college writing courses under one's belt, opponents of games specific education say that this type of restricted learning will limit the other career paths students can take upon graduation or later in life. It won't give them the flexibility that a traditional degree does, and will put them in hot water if they are unsuccessful at finding a job in the game industry.

Although non-traditional schools have active relationships with video game companies, there are many game companies that prefer candidates with traditional university degrees or more worldly experience. Many smaller companies, who rely on all their staff to be able to solve problems across the business, often turn down resumes from individuals with game-specific degrees believing that their technical know-how isn't enough.

Marie Ferrer, a graduate of a traditional computer science program, is a freelance writer and junior software programmer in Vancouver.