How do you Educate a Game Designer?

10 Jan

Recently an acquaintance of mine who works in the industry raised a valid point about entering game development: he simply feels that technical schools don’t provide the time or mindset necessary to fully train individuals as a university would. It’s not that he doesn’t believe these schools don’t provide the necessary tools to become a game developer, it’s that he views them as something more akin to a finishing school, polishing the student’s skills rather than developing them quickly from the ground up. This may be true for some areas of game development, but I feel that game design in particular is a special case that shouldn’t be lumped together with the other facets of game development – not because it is superior, but because the skill set required to be a good designer is so different than what is needed to be a successful programmer or 3D artist.James Portnow, a game designer employed by Activision, managed to spark my interest on this subject in his article titled Playing to Learn. Portnow instructs aspiring designers on how they should break down and analyze the games they play in order to essentially reverse engineer the logic used to create systems and mechanics. Although he warns that designers should not try to approach games from a purely analytical standpoint, as it seems that it would defeat the purpose of the exercise; “Start by playing — actually playing. I’ve seen designers lose the ability to play games and only retain the ability to study them. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is something you should avoid at all costs over the course of your career. I’ll go even further and say you can’t be a great designer if you can’t play.”

So, what does playing to learn have to do with an education in game design? First of all, one can’t argue that more education, more accruement of knowledge is not beneficial to someone’s learning, but what I am making a point of here is that such an academic approach to game design may not be necessary, and could in fact be harmful if amalgamated into a university curriculum, and the idea of playing to learn is a key factor in my theory. While a technical skill such as programming requires an extensive knowledge of theory, languages and most importantly a penchant for logical thinking in order to build a solid base, I believe that most game designers have been building their knowledge base by themselves for years, perhaps even inadvertently. Portnow notes that ” After many years of playing, gamers develop a sense that tells them when something in a game is extraordinary.”

What concerns me most when I think about a four year game design degree is not the time spent studying, but that the very nature of game design would be lost in the current academic structure. As Ernest Adams points out in his book Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, “In other fields, such as engineering, architecture, and mathematics, the spread of ideas is facilitated by the use of a common language. Each engineer or mathematician knows how to express ideas-even brand-new ideas-in the given language of the craft.” Right now we don’t have that advantage, and it seems that in defining a vocabulary for game design, which I feel an academic course is wont to do, we would be limiting ourselves, sticking ourselves in a rut from which it would be difficult to break out of. I find Ernest Adam’s approach to be more appealing; “This chapter attempts to define gameplay without reference to itself or reliance on examples of itself for definition. That doesn’t mean that we won’t give examples, but those examples will not serve as definitions. Instead, they will be used in their traditional role to illustrate the definitions previously laid out.” Essentially, it seems to be more important to define the structures that already exist so that we can fully understand what we’re working with, rather than trying to set in stone what is right or wrong in design – a set of rules that I feel would become quite constraining in practice.

In conclusion, while a technical whirlwind of a course may not be considered optimal, it is certainly a more productive and passionate way into the industry than the long term academic training suggested in the article. Theory exists in order to reinforce our opinions and practices; it shouldn’t be mistaken for a superior tool for training game designers over practical, hands on experience. As the first article points out, as an industry we are still fairly insecure – but it seems like trying to legitimize ourselves by conforming to set standards is an unnatural move for game design as a whole. There is also the worry that students from technical programs are simply seeking employment, and aren’t capable of seeing the larger picture in order to advance the industry. I suppose that’s just something people like us have to prove on our own.

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2 Responses to “How do you Educate a Game Designer?”

  1. Andrew Laing January 11, 2008 at 9:22 pm #

    Your friend in fact does NOT have a valid point. (The one that says Universities are better than technical schools). I went to University. (McMaster) I went to technical college (Digipen) Strangely enough it was called Digipen University.
    A university is a place that educates people, so is a technical college. I would say it’s more important to be able to judge the individual school. Not trying to sound pompous, but what University teaches a game mechanics course? There isn’t even a book on the subject in print. What University has someone like Dave Warfield as their program head (Produced EA’s NHL series for a darn long time)? Universities have academic types as program heads, typically with little ‘real world’ experience, which is so important to a videogame production program.
    I recall at Digipen, we had about 7 comp sci grads and every now and then during FIRST year studies, Claude Comair (at the time a double computer graphics PhD by the way and teaching at a technical college) would ask the comp sci grads if they had ever done the things we were doing. Unanimously their response was that in four years of comp sci, they had to take English courses and non-relevant electives which sucked up their time so that they did MORE programming in one year at Digipen than 4 years at University.

  2. nickhalme January 11, 2008 at 11:12 pm #

    Maybe a better way to put it would be that he had a valid concern. You make a good point in that other courses would negate the time added by a university course — that never occurred to me. Personally I think academic education is very artificial and that people fall back on it, as if simply attending classes at a prestigious university will make you more intelligent. You would probably learn more if you were to sit down and chat with a professor than sit in on a huge lecture, which is what schools like VFS provide, lots of individual attention from very talented people.

    That being said, perhaps someday it will be beneficial for the industry to be able to draw from a much wider pool of talent, with colleges and universities offering courses in game design, as they do already with art and programming.

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