Are Video Game Courses Screwing Students?

Are Video Game Courses Screwing Students?

Not all that long ago, if you wanted to learn how to develop video games, you had to find a way into a tiny college called DigiPen that was nestled away in Vancouver. DigiPen has since relocated to Redmond, Washington, and blossomed along with countless other “game schools” and degrees that have sprung to life over the past decade.

Some of the leading figures in the games industry are displeased about the “generalist” nature of modern game courses, which tend to encourage a philosophy on games rather than break down and teach the actual process of making games–production, art direction, programming, 3D modeling, etc.

Eidos president Ian Livingstone seems particularly bothered about the matter. “[Universities have] crossed out the word media studies and put computer game studies,” he said in a Eurogamer TV report aired earlier this month. “But they haven’t actually had a dialogue with industry. We do not need them teaching a philosophy about games, we need computer science, art and animation.”

Andy Payne, the founder of the budget PC software company Mastertronic Group, believes that there needs to be more open communication between universities and game developers. “I think that’s down to the games industry to properly reach out to higher education, and then higher education understanding what the games industry really needs. It’s not that we haven’t got the talent, we just don’t produce the finished article.”

Are students being misled into believing they’re signing up–and paying for–courses that will teach them how to put together a game when in fact they’re simply going to learn how to analyze and review titles? Should developers be concerned about what these schools are (and aren’t) teaching the industry’s next generation of programmers?

There is definitely some concern about students being misinformed about what they’re actually learning in some of these game schools. The article by GamesIndustry.Biz makes mention of students who were “disillusioned” by said schools, as they were taught theory instead of the actual nuts and bolts of game creation. However, students should also be aware that game creation is hardly something that can be generalized. Though one person can certainly put together an epic game, most students narrow down their interests–animation, programming, the nooks and crannies of artificial intelligence–and study accordingly.

Likewise, developers shouldn’t worry too much about the graduates that are being produced by generalized game schools. An enthusiast who truly wants to be part of the game creation process will find a way–sometimes without the aid of post-secondary education. More than a few people in the industry began their climb as a lowly game tester whose input gradually grew in value.

Then there’s the plain idea that students who sign up for generalized game courses know perfectly well what they’re destined to study, and look forward to it. Alex Doenau, 25, from Sydney Australia enrolled in “Computer Games and Simulation” at the University of Sydney in 2007. He doesn’t have a job in the games industry–he’s currently still in school, working towards a Masters in Journalism–but he appreciated what the course offered him.

“Do film studios really try to have a say in how a film studies course is run?” Doenau asks. “I don’t imagine so, except for possible fierce attempts to make sure that copyright and screening laws are respected. Obviously, university courses are going to vary in content and usefulness. The person who was actually running [my] course never played video games himself, but he still managed to display a real interest and enthusiasm in what we were doing and what we were teaching. He really took to the theory and it was like he was learning it with us as he went along. It was a niche course with maybe only twenty people, and we did it as a sort of round table discussion every week. It was one of the best community experiences that I had at university.

“The course itself used the book ‘The Game Design Reader’, Salem and Zimmerman, ed. It was a hefty tome, approximately 920 pages. Real blunt instrument stuff, and it collected a lot of great articles about stuff that you would have considered and more obscure but essential historical items. It’s the sort of textbook you would revisit years after the fact.”

Doenau says the course was not meant to teach students how to actually make games, nor did it ever disguise itself as such. “[I]t certainly shows students how these things have traditionally worked, and it can show you the way that things are going. But they’re not teaching you how to make games, nor are they attempting to do so.

“Is it elitism on the part of these developers, that only they can possibly know how the secrets of video games passed down from time immemorial? A theoretical course is never going to be the same as a practical one. In literature, in film studies and, now, in game studies, we learn to deconstruct things. That does not mean we can construct them for ourselves–you would not want to see a film made by me–but we can understand how they are made, what we like about them, what we don’t, and what is wrong or right with any given ‘text.'”

Classes on video game theory are likely to become a university mainstay, and will probably always manage to fill seats. As long as students know what they’re studying, and as long as schools don’t mislead students about the degree of skill they’ll walk away with, classes related to game theory will continue to serve well as informative and fun introductions to the industry.

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About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. Your article really resonated with me. I finished in June my spanish HND (its not exactly the same, but its the closest thing in the international education system) on Audiovisual Production and, I was sure to take a ¨year off¨ after that, not to waste my time, but to learn 3D (modeling, texturing, rigging, animation and everything I could). There´s not any formal or worth education course in Spain, and the best of them are too expensive. I got a friend studing in UK, and he pays more than 11000 euros for year and in 3 years, we could know the same studing each one in his way. However, people keep telling that titulation is important for the resume. Can any proffesional give me some opinion about what to do? Keep studing by myself and try to get a job presenting examples of my work? Or go the other way for a formal title (which costs so much money)?

  2. As a University lecturer I find some of the trends displayed in this article very concerning. The most worrying for me is a possible conflation between a technical game creation degree and game studies within an academic context.

    Universities are increasingly being expected to teach something ‘useful’ and ‘applicable’: to provide a skill set rather than an education. While a degree in Accounting may prepare you to be an accountant, this has never been the case in the Humanities. A degree in English does not prepare you to be a best selling author.

    While I fully agree that the courses should be careful to not misrepresent themselves, people must also understand that there are different agendas at play in an academic environment than in a technical environment, and that these would most certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea.

    An English decree teaches critical thinking, analytical skills, history, and most of all commitment to a long term goal. A film studies degree does the same within the context of a different medium. Many game studies courses aim to achieve the same for the creative media of video games. These skills, while not specific to a future career, are valuable in their own right, and many many students proceed to be very successful in their chosen career paths, even if not directly related to their studies.

    Yes technical skills should also be taught, but the danger is not of training people to be unable to access industry, but of perpetuating a view that games are purely technical creatures, not worthy of the study allowed the ‘higher’ arts like literature, film and fine arts.

    My contention is not that one element is better than the other, but that there needs to be a greater awareness that these courses, the academic and the technical, serve very distinct functions.

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