Game Design and Game-Development Education

By Rajagopalan, Mohan; Schwartz, David I. | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Game Design and Game-Development Education

Rajagopalan, Mohan, Schwartz, David I., Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Not so long ago the idea of learning to create video games in college classes was outrageous. If you were a student then, thinking about following your passion for creating games, even if you managed not to be laughed at, ridiculed, or otherwise disparaged, you were unlikely to receive much guidance. Other than vague notions that you should probably learn how to program, no one really had much advice to offer.

Now, it takes only a quick look at the "Schools" section of to see that the situation has changed dramatically. Gamasutra, a popular site featuring game-industry news and articles on all aspects of game development, now lists more than three hundred schools that provide game-development courses. Academia now takes seriously what students have been demanding for years: instruction in the creation of video games.

And why shouldn't it be taken seriously? Games are a juggernaut of entertainment. Figures vary, but it is generally accepted that the North American interactive-entertainment industry is as big as, if not bigger than, the North American film industry. Games are now ubiquitous in popular culture. More than 40 percent of U.S. households own some kind of game system. Kids now spend more time playing games than watching television. Mobile phones feature full-color polyphonic games as a matter of course. The latest heated debate about the best game system rages over the various handhelds that you can throw into your backpack. Live orchestral concerts featuring exclusively video-game music play to packed houses. Video-game franchises regularly spawn books, comics, cartoons, action figures, board games, card games, and, for better or for worse, feature-length films. The addictive popularity of massively multiplayer online games is so well understood that such games are featured in the Sunday comics.


In short, games are big. And universities know it just as well as everyone else does. So, what is an institution of higher learning to do? Offer game-development courses, naturally. But it is not quite that simple.

Game development as a cohesive industry is extremely young and as an academic discipline certainly in its infancy. That means there are virtually no textbooks, no set curriculum, and no experienced teachers. Conventions of terminology and instruction have yet to be established. No benchmarks have been set for what students should know before or after taking a game-development course. The schools that do have such courses are generally forced to figure things out as they go.

And institutions themselves often demonstrate internal resistance. Although many schools have embraced game creation as a legitimate and worthwhile endeavor, it is still a hard sell for many academicians. Most professors did not grow up playing games, and many view them as a distraction from more worthwhile pursuits. Without sincere support from the faculty, emerging game-development efforts will be sunk before they ever set sail. Without question, games will have to battle the stigma of being frivolous for some time to come. Meanwhile, proponents of game development in academia will have to campaign all the harder.

Perhaps the most profound obstacle to incorporating game development at the college level is one that is too often overlooked: game development is heavily and inextricably interdisciplinary. Game development is not programming. Nor is it 3D modeling and animation. It is not writing. It is not filmmaking. It is not artificial intelligence, game theory, human-computer interaction, interactive art, adaptive music, or any of the other diverse components of game creation. Game development encompasses a vast array of disciplines, making it very difficult to find the right place and way to offer game courses.

This dilemma should not be taken lightly. It is far too easy to place game development within the context of computer science without a second thought.

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