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Gaming Degrees

by Hannah Harn

Photo courtesy of Richard Royle

Off-campus, Boston’s independent game industry thrives. After all, a city with multiple major research institutions is bound to be popular for new companies seeking fresh talent. And, if game design is what you want to do, New England has you covered: six Massachusetts colleges and universities offer degree programs in game design and development. Northeastern University has graduate and undergraduate degrees in the field, and Becker College in Worcester even offers programs in e-sports.

Video games have also created a new avenue for data research: who is playing what, where they are playing it, what do they want to do more of, etc. At universities, this means a widening arena for game study and game design education. When Northeastern University became interested in researching engagement and analyzing game data, Associate Professor Magy Seif El-Nasr joined the team.

“I feel a lot of our programs suffer from the same problem the industry suffers from,” Seif El-Nasr said. “A lot of our programs do not have as much diversity as we would like, although that’s also changing.”

Degree programs in game design and development have the ability to change the game dev scene. El-Nasr and other members of the game development program have been working with middle and high school age groups to encourage people from wider backgrounds to pursue interests in game design. A more diverse developer community would bring better diversity to the games themselves, which would change the way players engage with their games.

According to Seif El-Nasr, sensitivity toward cultural aspects and unique approaches in the game industry would also mean a new approach to cultural preservation.

“We have been open do doing things like interactive narrative, creativity workshops to engage more diverse audiences,” she said. “I think that’s also changing the industry in a way.”

Another big influence of university-based game study is the rise of new factors for game analysis. Seif El-Nasr has found data sciences in games to be a major point of disruption as they point developers in a new analytical direction, whether that’s regarding distribution and platforms or marketing. University programs give younger and more diverse people a clearer path to a career in game development.

The rising popularity of the game industry makes it harder for new people to get in on the action.

“It’s always been viable, but it’s still hard to get into the industry,” Seif El-Nasr said, noting it’s especially difficult if you’re not from the United States. “[International students] need visas to stay here, so developing an indie company is not going to be easy for them.”

Northeastern’s program has been around since the ’90s. However, while Boston University offers various degrees in computer science, they don’t have the same sort of specialized programming seen at Northeastern and Becker.

“There are definitely people who are interested in game development at BU, but they’re going through the normal computer science or software engineering streams,” said Tiernan Cahill, a Ph.D. student of Emerging Media Studies (COM). “There’s not so much like a program or a sequence that is going to put you in a game development career.”

There is some overlap, especially in the COM’s Emerging Media program, but there’s not as much of a focus on game design as a career path or degree program at BU. While some people argue that having a niche program will limit people’s options once they graduate, no specialized field of study means fewer resources for people interested in what Cahill calls “the design problem of games, which is kind of really critical.”

Beyond just programming, game design education helps new developers learn about how players engage with their games. To Cahill, designing games is as much about how you create fun, implement challenges and tell stories as it is about software.

It also means a “greater separation” within the greater Boston academic community, Cahill said, “between people who are looking at that from a scientific perspective who are here at BU and MIT, and then people who are actually training people on how to do it in their careers who are largely at Northeastern.”

Back at Northeastern, it’s more about intention. For Chris Foster, a professor at Northeastern and a developer at Firehose Games, university programs and degrees offer new and accessible avenues for a new culture of game developers.

“It’s all about giving people an approach to the craft of making games,” he said of the programs. Foster himself came into the game industry via an apprenticeship. “I’m under no illusion that it’s the only one; I’m only under slight illusion that it’s the best one.”

Foster tries to emphasize that sense of intention in his programs. “It’s more about getting people to make conscious choices about how they think about games and how they go about them,” he said. “The value of that education to me is not the diploma. I think it’s the skill set.”

Over the course of his 14-week program, students will have made two major projects by the end of the semester, Foster said.

“A huge component of how I teach games and how I think games should be taught is giving people opportunities to make them….To make games, you need to have made games,” said Foster. “The most important thing I can do is to bring those lessons to life by having [students] face the reality of making a game and it not being good enough and making it better.”

Despite the rapid growth of Boston’s game industry, there is still some doubt about the potential for success even with a Bachelor’s of Science or Master’s degree in game development.

“I think people who are interested in making games are in interesting times. You learn a trade and then the ability to live off it is a less certain thing,” said Foster. “But having been on the other side, hiring people, it’s absolutely not the diploma. It’s about proof of the skillset and mindset, which is a portfolio. That’s the thing that will get you hired.”

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