Game design education grows with the industry

Work example JN
An example of Johnny Nguyen's 3D modeling work.

  By Katie Finnell


When Kristen Halloran learned that Northeastern University was offering a degree in Game Design, she immediately sent in an application to transfer from the digital art program she was enrolled in.

In December, she will be the first student to graduate from the program.

Halloran is one of the growing number of college students who grew up playing video games and is now studying to make them.

Work example KH
An example of Kristen Halloran’s 3D environment work.
Credit: Kristen Halloran

Timothy Loew, executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute, saw the rise in popularity of game design education while working at Becker College.

“We thought, ‘Boy this is terrific, we need to better understand the marketplace locally, nationally and internationally,’” he said.

With the creation of Mass DiGI in April 2011, the organization gives students opportunities to work with industry professionals through internship programs and events, as well as work with students at other colleges.

Loew said Mass DiGI is partnered with about 20 colleges in the state and students from nearly 30 colleges participate in the organization’s events and programs.

He said the organization plans to do a survey in the spring that will give an exact count of the number of students and faculty in game design and development programs.

“We guess it’s about 1,500 students in undergraduate development and design programs,” Loew said.  “We expect that number to continue to grow.”

Northeastern University professor Brian Sullivan said he has seen the game design program grow since he came to the university three years ago.

He said the current senior class is 12 students, but the freshman class is 40 students.

“It’s growing very fast,” he said.  “With more students, we can offer more electives.”

He said the department is planning to offer a master’s program next fall.

Northeastern junior Zach Fand said he applied to the university’s dual degree computer science and game design programs.

“I looked at this (program) specifically for the co-op,” said Fand, who worked his first co-op at Zynga as the sole engineer for the social game “Adventure World.”

While he has seen the curriculum change as the department figures out what curriculum works for students and what doesn’t, Fand said he is “the biggest supporter of the program.”

For some Northeastern students, like junior Jim Shargo, the game design program was art focused for students who wanted to specialize in other areas.

“The broad scope is not conducive to work,” said Shargo, who transferred from the game design program to computer science.

For him, true education came from working in the industry.  Shargo worked for Zynga’s Boston studio as an engineer until it closed in October.

“I learned absolutely valuable things about what’s happening all the time,” he said.

Even in an industry where job security is sometimes uncertain, “the quality of people you’re working with is so worthwhile,” he said.

The Northeastern University Game Development Club prepares for a 32-hour game jam.
Credit: Katie Finnell

Emerson College Associate Professor Brooke Knight said the visual and media arts department is changing to a common degree audit, where all students will get their Bachelor’s in visual and media arts but can specialize in what courses they take.

“Rather than divide by technology in VMA and divide by medium, we’re interested in ways different media talk to each other,” Knight said.

He said the department has looked at 50 other colleges that offer game design and interactive media curricula.  Few, he said, had a comprehensive program set within a non-profit institution.

“Emerson should look to be at the forefront,” Knight said.

Associate Professor John Craig Freeman said the curriculum is broad based and flexible, so it gives students fundamental skills while allowing them to specialize.

Freeman teaches the animation and 3D gaming courses in the department and said gaming was an obvious direction as the department expands its offerings.

“Games require an interdisciplinary approach,” he said.  “That approach is taken with the curriculum here.”

At Becker College, a liberal arts education on top of the technical education in the interactive entertainment programs creates well rounded students, said college President Robert Johnson.

“When you’re making a game about World War II, you have to know something about history,” he said.

Becker, which has been rated a top school for game design by the Princeton Review, also houses Mass DiGI.  This, Johnson said, gives students an edge when searching for jobs.

“Mass DiGI exposure helps students be involved in entrepreneurial and economic developing types of activity you don’t get with straight education,” he said.

Becker senior Breeze Grigas has taken advantage of Mass DiGI.  He participated in an 11-week summer program where he worked with other students on a professional level game development project.

“I’ve learned what it means to work on a team in a professional environment, how to work under pressure of deadlines and how to manage teams,” he said.

While he has an interest in 2D animation, Grigas said his education at Becker has prepared him for jobs outside of video games, including graphic design, web design and animation.

For recent Becker graduate Johnny Nguyen, it was working with fellow students that taught him the importance of quality assurance – testing the game to find and fix bugs in the software and making sure mechanics work correctly.

“Without this skill, I wouldn’t have gotten my amazing internship with Trilight Studios,” he said.

Work example JN
An example of Johnny Nguyen’s 3D modeling work.
Credit: Johnny Nguyen

But, students see some limitations in a program that educates students for careers in a relatively new industry.

Grigas said many of his professors come from backgrounds in animation, graphic design and programming in other industries.  The lack of video game industry experience with his professors can be a “hindrance,” he said.

“I didn’t know exactly what was expected of me, or what I should focus on,” he said.

But as the program has grown, industry professionals, like Walt Yarbrough of Mythic Entertainment and Keo Heng of Turbine Games, work at the college as adjunct professors, he said.

Sullivan, who co-created the game “Age of Empires” and founded two Massachusetts studios, said colleges do have trouble finding industry professionals with the post-graduate degrees required by most institutions.

But, he said, game design education will change the video game industry.

“Everyone in the past had to learn on the job,” he said.  Now students will graduate from universities already knowing the fundamental skills.

“Teaching in universities raises the bar in the industry,” he said.  “People will create games at a higher level.”

To see more work by game design students, check out “Northeastern students test their design skills.”

About Katherine Finnell 6 Articles
Katie Finnell is a multimedia journalist interested in reporting on new media industries.