For a Career in Gaming, are Game Design Degrees Worth It?

Photo credit: Lou FCD

Many students and parents believe that if they are interested in a career in gaming, then the best thing for them to pursue is a degree in “Game Design”, “Game Programming”, or “Game Art and Animation”. There is no shortage of schools nowadays offering these programs, and you see advertisements everywhere online. It seems to make sense, right? If you want to do games, then why not go ahead and have the word “game” in your major? It seems like you’d be a shoe-in for any job opportunity.

While a few of these programs can lead to a successful career in gaming, in my career advising with parents and students I actually recommend against them, at least at first.

Why would I not recommend seeking game degrees? There are a few reasons. First is the flexibility. If you are interested in programming and think you’d like to work in the games industry, then that’s great. Engineers are in high demand and you will likely find it easy to land yourself a fun, high paying job. However, my first suggestion is always to try and get into a top-tier computer science program and major more generally in “computer science”, not “game programming”. With a computer science degree you have an enormous amount of flexibility with your career. Computer science majors can get you not only into any game company, but almost any technology company as well. Not only EA, Activision, and Zynga will be recruiting you, but also Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, IBM, and a slew of others.

The key here is that you never know what the future may hold. If, for instance, you begin your career in gaming and then develop different interests, then you have the option of moving somewhere else in technology. But if you majored in “game programming”, then you are locked in against your will, there isn’t much you can do. So as a career advisor I can’t recommend degrees that specialize in games as a first choice.

The second reason is the level of depth and expertise. You would think that majors that are focused on games would be in higher demand within the games industry than more general majors, but this actually isn’t true. If you look at the new hires at the top game companies, then they typically have majors in Computer Science, Art and Animation, or Business/Finance, without the word “game” attached to any of them. One of the reasons for this is that the games industry is so dynamic, the rules change every year as we move from platform to platform, opening up new audiences and players. Thus, if you are taught specifically how to use Adobe Flash and Unity in school, then you may not be as much help when the next thing comes along. But if you know how to do art of all kinds or coding of all kinds, then you will be useful for decades to come.

Finally, students with game-specific majors, even if they are hired at top companies, often end up in “Associate” positions to start their career in gaming, instead of a higher paid position right off the bat. This is because of the reason above, the skills learned in a game degree are narrow, and so companies need to see these new hires prove themselves before moving them into a more general role that may require skills outside of what they learned. But a computer science or art and animation degree doesn’t have these problems.

As I’ve said, these are all my first recommendations. However if other top tier schools in art or computer science are not an option for you, then a strong game degree can help you start your career in gaming and make your start. But it’s important to realize the ways in which it may be affecting your future.

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Lead Game Designer

7 thoughts on “For a Career in Gaming, are Game Design Degrees Worth It?

  • Hi Brice,

    I like your article about are games design degree worth it. I did a computer games design and production course at university. From what you were saying about lack of depth, my course taught us different things like games design docs, 3d modelling, computer graphics, sound design, programming. We learned the basics but I think it wasn’t in depth because I a games designer doesn’t need to very good at programming or art. They just need to know the basics. I liked when a games designer from a local company came in and taught us. It is almost going a year since I’ve graduated. So far had one interview. Looking back I think I rushed to pick my degree and didn’t look at what the success rate was of graduates getting a job. It is a fairly new course. Do games employers regard people with games degrees highly? Before I started my course, I read stories about how they are not good enough. I’m from the UK.

  • What would be a good undergraduate program for a person interested in a career in gaming — one that would provide a basic background that would be a solid foundation for pursuing a number of different graduate programs or career opportunities?

  • I almost always recommend computer science. It would allow you to do engineering as well as design or product management.

  • Hi Brice!
    Thanks for a very informative article!
    I am facing a similar dilemma though. I am a mechanical major but I always wanted a career in gaming industry. I learnt that UPenn offers a MCIT(masters of computer and Info Tech.) for non Computer science majors as well, which further allows students to pursue CGGT (Computer Graphics and Game Technology) course- a total of min. 2 years.
    After reading your article, I am giving it a serious and more realistic thought. CGGT sounds tempting though.
    Any suggestions?

  • A computer graphics and game technology degree from UPenn would definitely be helpful in finding a job in the industry. If you have the resources I would say go for it.

  • I majored in biotechnology but I am in the IT industry now working with SAP/ABAP. Do I have a shot in the future at a programming career in game design?

  • Hi Akshay, if you don’t have game experience, then the best recommendation I’d give would be to start making your own games on the side in your current job, and go from there. Best of luck!

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