What are the downsides of a job as a Video Game Programmer?

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In this episode of Game Industry Career Guide Podcast, I answer a question from Hy N., who asked “I am good in math, I love coding, and I have a strong passion for gaming. So I think being a game programmer fits the best for me. I want to know what are the disadvantages? I found out that programmers have to sit in front of a computer all day, that really scares me. Any advice for me?”

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How “knowledge work” is fundamentally different from other jobs
  • Why game programming is a bit less… social than other game jobs
  • How to tell whether you’ll be cool with game programming, or whether it will drive you crazy

If you have a question you'd like to get answered on the podcast, leave a comment below or ask me anything here.

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Hello and welcome to the Game Industry Career Guide Podcast. This is episode number 31. I am Jason W. Bay from gameindustrycareerguide.com and this is the podcast where I answer your questions about getting a job and growing your career making video games.

This week’s question is from a reader named Hy. Hy left a comment on a blog post to ask this, “I am good in math, I love coding and I have a strong passion for gaming. So I think being a game programmer fits the best for me. I want to know what are the disadvantages. I found out that programmers have to sit in front of a computer all day and that really scares me. Any advice for me?”

This is a great question because when people talk about being a game programmer, they usually talk about how game programmers are always in high demand and that they are often paid much higher salaries than most other jobs in the game industry. But when you’re thinking about your future career, you need to ask yourself more than just how easy it is to get the job and how much does it pay. You should also ask yourself is this a job that fits my personality.

So today, let’s talk about what a game programmer’s daily job is like and how that might or might not be a good fit for you. A good place to start might be to point out that game programing is a type of work that’s broadly known as knowledge work. Now if you haven’t heard that term before, knowledge work, it refers to somebody doing a job where the main value is in that person’s knowledge. You could describe it as somebody whose main job is to think for a living.

Game programmers spend much of their time just thinking. Even when they are coding, they don’t actually spend very much time actually typing code into their computer. Most of the time they are researching a problem, thinking about the best way to solve the problem in their code or maybe debugging existing code. So, there’s an awful lot going on inside their head, but it doesn’t look like much for somebody who is looking at them from the outside. It looks like they’re just sitting there staring at their computer screen. And that’s because most of their work is happening inside their head not out in the world.

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Compare that to another game job like maybe a game artist. If you are watching a game artist do her work, you might see her sketching on a paper or on a digital tablet. Or consider a games designer. You’d see him around talking to people at their desks or maybe having small team meetings, or drawing on a white board to plan out some aspect of the game. Or think about game testers. You’d see a tester playing the game and maybe talking about it with the nearby coworkers.

Now, programmers sometimes also talk with coworkers or go to meetings, but compared to those other jobs, programmers spent a lot more time just sitting quietly at their desks. In fact, most programmers that I know, they really don’t like having meetings. And honestly, they can get a bit irritable if you walk up to their desk and you interrupt them while they are concentrating on their code. I was a game programmer for several years myself. So I can vouch for the fact that it does get super annoying when you’re working quietly on a problem and somebody interrupts you. It can be hard to hide your irritation from your coworkers. One trick that gets used is that coders will wear headphones when they don’t want to be interrupted. It’s their way of letting the team know that they are in the zone and they shouldn’t be interrupted. That trick does work most of the time.

But keep in mind even game artists, designers and producers, they’re mostly also knowledge workers. So if you compare any game job to a non-knowledge work job like a retail worker, or a dentist, or a wedding planner, it’s pretty obvious that most jobs in the game industry aren’t very social compared to those other jobs. That’s just how knowledge work is.

What this all means to you is that being a game programmer isn’t very social job. Sure, you’re working on a team that you’ll be collaborating with from time to time and sometimes you might even spend a lot of time talking with the other programmers on the team like when you’re working on a big code system that affects other areas of the game. But compared to most of the other game jobs, it’s a pretty solitary job most of the time. So if one of your top strengths is communicating and if talking to others, and collaborating in person with a team is one of your favorite things to do, then game programing might be rough on you because it’s not likely to adequately feed that part of your personality. So that’s something to consider.

Another drawback of game programing, and of knowledge work in general, is that you do spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen. Sometimes as much as six or seven hours a day or even more if you happen to be working overtime to ship a game. And that can lead to a number of health problems like back pain, wrist pain, eyestrain and it’s also common for new people to gain weight really quickly when they start working in games. But most or all of those problems can be avoided if you’re aware of them and if you purposely structure your work and your life accordingly.

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I talk more about how to stay healthy in the game industry in Episode 10 of this podcast. So you can go back and listen to Episode 10 if you want more information on staying healthy while you work in the game industry. I talk about ergonomics, nutrition and most importantly, exercise. Those are all super important to know about when you work at a desk all day.

Okay, well I hope I haven’t scared you away from being a game programmer. Frankly, I consider myself a very social person and I love talking with people on my teams. But I still really enjoyed the years that I spent programing games. One way to know for yourself is to think about times in your life when you’ve had to spend many hours working on your computer. Have you ever done an 8 or a 10-hour binge playing games on your computer? Or have you ever spent all weekend long on your computer trying to finish a programing assignment for school? Well, if you did, ask yourself how did it feel. Did you love it? Did you hate it? The key is this. If you spent all that time on your computer and you found that you got lost in your work, if the hours seemed to just slip away and no time at all. Now if that happened and if that felt great, then you’re able to get in the zone as a programmer and I think that you’d do just fine as a full time game programmer.

Those are just a few things to think about when you’re considering a job making video games or really when you’re considering any job as a computer-based knowledge worker. Thanks to Hy for this week’s question and thank you for spending a little time with me today. If you have a question of your own, stop by the website and leave me a comment or send me an email and I might answer it on a future episode. For more information and inspiration on getting a job and growing your career making video games, visit me at gameindustrycareerguide.com. I’m Jason W. Bay and I will see you again next week, right here on the Game Industry Career Guide Podcast.

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