99: Tighten Those Graphics

"In addition to the low cost of enrollment, community and small colleges offer practicality and skill focus. But are they delivering the best education possible? The primary criticism of these programs has been their lack of connection with actual game development - criticism also levied at larger universities, which suffer a catch-22: Upscale universities require all of their professors to have Ph.D.s, but with few exceptions, there are no Ph.D.s for game development, and even if there were, you wouldn't commonly see a practicing developer carrying one."

Erin Hoffman takes a critical look at the game design curriculum gold rush.

Tighten Those Graphics

Teaching "game design" always seemed a bit odd to me, mostly because it's still so poorly understood. It is very much an art, and those who do it are artists, but there's been so little study of the art that I'd be of the opinion that the only thing that can really be taught is the underlying skills of programming, the various visual arts associated with games, and enough of writing and music to get by.

Designing a game has next to no standard terminology, and most of that is misapplied. This means it's very difficult to communicate concepts cleanly. In literature, students are taught literary devices from junior high school; in traditional art, anything you can think of relating to coloring things has a name with a very clear definition; even film has a concrete lexicon. The tools for these arts don't tie anyone down to a specific technology (aside from the very generic - "canvas" or "the English language" - which to game design I would call about equivalent to, say, "C++") and have been refined so much that it would be simply unthinkable to suggest that a given manufacturer make tools that doesn't allow the artist to work with the tools of other manufacturers.

I believe at this point, the design of simulations has reached the appropriate level of sophistication (due in part to the influence of industry), but games for entertainment haven't yet reached that level of refinement. To that end, I'd repeat that it seems more fruitful to teach just the underlying skills at an undergraduate level, and leave the theory of design to the people who've survived the first round of fly-by-nights. Let games make a presence for themselves in serious academia, comparable to film or cuisine at least.

This will, of course, take time.

Much more information on GAMES:EDU at http://www.gamesedu.co.uk.
Last year there was a panel on the idea of teaching game design - is this something we can even teach graduates - what jobs will graduates expect, and what did Steven Speilberg learn at University?
This year looks at keeping up with technology and Games Education, as well as developing 'talent'

Thanks for commenting, BongoBill.

I'm not sure I would agree that game design is poorly understood. It is part of the natural evolution of a medium that it will be exercised in practice long before it is formalized. From your art perspective (I think I would generally agree that game design is an art, but the approach to its implementation is actually much more scientific: hypothesize, implement, observe, rehypothesize; whereas art is usually "this is my expression, you can take it or leave it" -- because it is a communicative art [the heart of games is interactivity], there is feedback or testing involved), though -- art is certainly taught, and most serious artists have art degrees.

Generally game design is considered similar to writing, I think, in that you will find people who will make the argument that it can be learned but not taught. I don't buy that for either craft. Anything that can be learned can be taught, and in fact you can reverse that argument and say that a skilled craftsperson can teach but an apprentice may not be able to learn. In both cases, and in the case of art, there is an element of natural predisposition or "talent" involved, but the lion's share is will and hard work. There are tools in writing and game design that can be learned and mastered.

I think you would find that there is more standardization in terminology than you'd think. There are also, for those with the interest to do the digging, "rules" or ideas associated with the game design process -- Noah Falstein's 400 Project ( http://www.theinspiracy.com/400_project.htm ) is a good example, as is the less well known "Patterns in Game Design" by Björk and Holopainen. THE GAME DESIGN READER by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman is another great resource. There is a lot of information out there. The problem is that a lot of people claiming to be game design instructors don't have any idea about it. A lot of them even seem to be claiming to approaching game design from GRAPHIC DESIGN, which is totally ludicrous.

Another challenge that these programs will have (and make no mistake, I'm glad that they're trying -- I think it benefits the entire industry to have sharp academic minds spinning on this stuff and taking the time that practicing professionals can't to develop methodologies and theories about game art and science) is the same challenge that high caliber universities have all over the world: skill training versus theory. The majority of a high end computer science degree does not involve programming instruction; it involves algorithm theory. This is frequently a point of tension for the students, who want to come out of the university with practical skills. The problem is that practical skills such as language learning can be done independently; the hard stuff that drives the higher end of computing is theoretical and at the roots of all languages while giving precision to none. So the really critical thing that universities can offer is not practical instruction but an expansion in the thought toward the capabilities and cultural implications of interactive media. They can push games further. But an academic who is going to push games further is not going to be trained to make games in the mainstream development world. So to pay the bills and establish a healthy program a game development department is going to have to do both.

I believe it can be done, and I believe there are universities on their way to doing it. Like you say, it's going to take time, but it will be beneficial to us all.

An exploration of game design instruction itself would be interesting, and that seems to be how this article is getting some attention in the game education circles, but that really wasn't what I was trying to address because the topic is so big. I'd love to sometime (hi Russ!), but this article was more about the potential values and dangers of small college game instruction programs. I appreciate the discussion, though, and I think all of this is tremendously interesting and important.


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