Have you ever been playing your way through the levels and chapters of your favorite video game and found yourself wondering what it would be like to create games for a living? If so, it could be time to start looking at college majors and individual universities. This dream career is a real job, but you’re going to need a college education and significant technical skills to attain it.
Exploring Video Games Degrees and Jobs
Many young people dream of getting into video game design, but they aren’t really aware of what that actually entails. Video games are more than just code. Making them well (and efficiently) requires full teams of people who are experts not only in graphic design and art but also audio, storyboards, programming, and more.
Video games encompass visual art, computer coding, storytelling, game controls and mechanics, animation and so much more. Even the most multitalented individual will have a hard time becoming an expert in all of these topics, which is why people generally referred to as “game designers” often specialize in one of these areas more than the others. The term “video game design” is most commonly used in a way that refers to the process of actually building the game through a set of specialized computer programs and tools.
Those pursuing video game design as a career may have the opportunity to work in many different roles in the function of video game design, including executive producer, producer, creative director, art director, 3D animator and texture artist, among many more positions. Aspiring video game designers should know, though, that most people do not get hired directly to the development team. Instead, they work their way up to these coveted roles, typically starting in a job function like quality assurance testing. Only after they have learned the intricacies of the operations involved in video game design and built a reputation for themselves within the specific atmosphere of the video game company will they typically have the opportunity to advance to a role in which they are directly involved in game design and development.
Different majors, as well as different learning environments at the college level, can prepare you for a career in video game design. Traditional on-campus programs at four-year colleges and universities are popular, but they aren’t your only options. Plenty of online schools offer the chance to work from home on your degree, and many of these are equally as respected as larger, in-class institutions. Another possibility is to seek out a technical college, where more dedicated vocational courses are offered.
Because the number of people required for the creation of a single game is so high, skilled workers are in high demand. The potential for employment is better than ever before, with small video game companies springing up everywhere and indie developers and entrepreneurs starting their own companies. With an education that equips you with the right skills, you could go on to form your own game company, especially after you gain some work experience in the field.
What Major Is Video Game Design Under?
If you’re serious about a career in video game design, you have some tough choices to make. Because different roles and job functions are involved in the development of a video game, different college majors will prepare you for these distinct roles.
You should also consider the amount of specialization you want in your college education. Certain colleges have dedicated degree programs for game designers, using interdisciplinary coursework to provide a uniquely tailored program of study that covers the most important topics in video game design. At other schools, you would earn a more general degree in a traditional college major, but you could narrow the focus of your studies and job training by taking specialized courses and acquiring relevant work and internship experiences in the video game industry.
Some of the majors you might consider as an aspiring video game designer include computer science, computer programming or game programming and graphic arts, as well as specialized programs of study in video game design.
Computer Science Degrees
Most people interested in video game design as a career should pursue a computer science degree. This is a broad area of study that won’t limit your career options to the fairly narrow video game industry. However, the curriculum of a computer science degree program will equip you with both the theoretical computer knowledge needed to conceive the ideas for game development and the hands-on programming skills needed to implement those plans.
When you study computer science, you will take classes in introductory computing concepts and methods, the fundamentals of software development, data structures and algorithms, software engineering fundamentals and the concepts of operating systems. Students often learn to use popular programming languages and software tools such as C and Java. The field of computer science uses mathematics in its algorithms, so you should expect to take a considerable amount of math coursework, including a sequence of calculus courses and classes in linear algebra and matrices, discrete mathematics and probability and statistics.
Some undergraduate degree programs in computer science offer a concentration in game development. The specialized coursework you might encounter in this academic track includes advanced computer graphics, game engine foundations, the building of artificial intelligence systems for games, the foundation of interactive game design and the development of interactive and computational visual narratives. You might also choose to study topics like film styles and genres, fiction writing in genres like fantasy and science fiction and the use of computers in music composition.
Computer Programming or Game Programming Degrees
People often confuse computer science and computer programming, but the two majors are distinct. If you opt to seek a degree in programming, your focus will be on the technical implementation of computing ideas and plans through coding. Programming degrees exist under slightly different titles, such as computer programming and software development. The curriculum of an undergraduate programming or software development degree will usually include studies in programming logic, object-oriented programming, data warehousing and database concepts and applications, web development, software engineering and computer security. Programming students will typically develop the skills for web scripting, software testing, the development of mobile applications and programming in widely used languages such as Python, C# and C++. Coursework in other computer areas, like computer networks, computer architecture and troubleshooting and business systems analysis, can also be valuable.
Some programming curricula are specific to game programming, with titles like Digital Simulation & Game Engineering Technology. Students of game programming degree programs still need to take general computer engineering technology studies in topics like algorithms, operating systems, data structures and system programming. Their specialized major courses may include studies in the foundations of game programming, real-time interactive programming, digital simulation design, 3D computer graphics and algorithmic and hardware optimization techniques for game development.
Graphic Arts and Design Degrees
If you’re more interested in the visual aspects of design than the technical work of computer coding, another possible degree path for aspiring video game designers is graphic design. Graphic designers are the ones who develop visual content and communications that convey messages and express information.
In the video game industry, graphic designers who are skilled in computer-generated imagery (CGI) creation may help create the cutscenes and animations that make the game aesthetically pleasing and that tend to express some of the most important parts of the game’s story.
Although most video game design courses include a few graphic design studies, they are only a small part of the curriculum. If you want to be fully dedicated to developing the visual aspects of video games, majoring in graphic arts or graphic design is one way to get a more comprehensive education in this area.
An undergraduate graphic design curriculum might include classes like computer imaging, graphic design fundamentals, the physics of light and sound, motion graphics and storyboarding, information graphics and web graphics and design. Students will learn to use popular production tools and software programs for graphic design, including Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. More specialized programs, like bachelor’s degrees in graphic and interactive design, will likely include some upper-level courses in interactive design, computer graphics, digital narratives, illustration, art direction, typography and advanced graphic design.
Video Game Design Degrees
Certain colleges have programs of study that are designed entirely around the specialized field of video game design. Thanks to their dedicated coursework and standards, these programs can put students on the fast track to success working in the video game industry, but their narrow focus makes them less than ideal for people who prefer a broader education with a more diverse array of career possibilities.
The schools that have specialized video game design programs are often paired with large companies such as Rockstar Games or Electronic Arts. These relationships mean that students at these institutions have a better chance of catching the eye of someone influential at one of these major companies and finding gainful employment quickly.
Specialized degree programs in video game design often include a mix of technical and artistic topics, according to The Art Career Project. On the technical side, students might learn about algorithms, computer graphics, programming with languages like Java and C++, physics, modeling, digital media and the tools and technologies of gaming design. More artistic areas of study include drawing, color theories, cinematography and animation and 3D animation.
In a lot of ways, what to expect as a video game designer major depends on the program of study you choose to prepare for this role. However, you should generally anticipate taking at least some coursework in computing, technical programming skills and art or animation. Students often find that the field of video game design is more complex than they realized.
Choosing a College for Video Game Design
Despite its popularity, video game design isn’t one of the largest or most widely offered college majors. Still, you might find more schools with excellent video game design programs than you would expect. U.S. News & World Report ranked the 10 best undergraduate programs for game design in 2022, identifying outstanding options in six states, while The Princeton Review in 2021 ranked the top 50 undergraduate programs and the top 25 graduate programs chosen out of 150 institutions.
All of these strong specialized options, as well as the option to major in broader areas of study like computer science or graphic design, can make it difficult to choose which school is right for you. Here are some top video game design schools in some of the states where programs in this major are plentiful.
Game Design Colleges in California
The highest-ranked game design school in the Golden State – and tied for first place nationwide, according to U.S. News & World Report – is the University of Southern California. The university offers two game-related majors at the undergraduate level, a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science degree with a Games emphasis and a Bachelor of Arts in Interactive Media & Games, as well as two graduate-level programs of study.
The University of California–Santa Cruz also landed a spot on U.S. News & World Report’s list for its Bachelor of Science in Computer Science: Computer Game Design and Bachelor of Arts in Art & Design: Games and Playable Media degree programs. The Academy of Art University in San Francisco has a School of Game Development, with options in game development and game programming.
Game Design Colleges in New York
Four of U.S. News & World Report’s top 10 undergraduate game design programs are located in the Empire State. New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts is home to NYU Game Center (the Department of Game Design) and game design programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Game design and development degrees are also offered at the bachelor’s and master’s levels at Rochester Institute of Technology. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, offers an undergraduate major in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, as well as graduate studies in Critical Game Design. Cornell University in Ithaca offers a minor in game design that would perfectly complement a bachelor’s degree in computer science, as well as the opportunity to pursue an independent major.
Game Design Colleges in Florida
Full Sail University has its own acclaimed Game School, with undergraduate options in game art, game design, game development and simulation and visualization. Other well-regarded Florida game design schools include the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, the University of Florida in Gainesville and, in Orlando, both the University of Central Florida and the Digital Animation & Visual Effects School.
Not every university offers a degree in video game design, but almost every university offers a degree in graphic design or computer science. While there are benefits to majoring in video game design specifically, such as established relationships between the schools and major video game companies, not pursuing a specialized video game major won’t keep you out of the industry if your skills are strong.
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