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What education is required to become a video game designer?

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In this episode of Game Industry Career Guide Podcast, I answer a question from Robert, who asks “I’m in high school and I was wanting to know how long you have to be in college to become a Lead Game Designer? So I was wondering if you could give me information on this career and the path to take.”

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • Why you’ll get conflicting opinions on this question
  • Which fields were studied by today’s top game designers
  • How long you should go to school for game design degrees

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 32. I’m 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.

Today’s question is from Robert, who left a comment on the website to ask this, “I’m in high school and I was wanting to know how long you have be in college to become a lead game designer. So I was wondering if you could give me information on this career and the path to take?”

Okay, let’s dive right in to this question. First of all, you can’t start out as a lead game designer. You’ve got to start as a game designer and then become a lead designer over time as you become a better designer, learn how game development works from the inside, and learn more about how to be successful in the game industry. Those are some things that you’ll learn on the job and one day you might become a lead designer if that part of the career path is right for you.

So for today, let’s focus on the question of, what sort of college education should you get to become a game designer? Now this is a question that gets asked all the time, but I found that the answers you get will vary a lot, depending on who you ask. Some people say that you should go to a college that has the formal game design degree. Others will tell you that you should do a degree in the arts or a degree in the humanities. Some people might tell you that you don’t need a degree at all, that if you make some little indie games on your own, then that might be a good enough portfolio to get you hired at a game studio.

Those are all reasonable opinions and any one of them is probably true for some people some of the time. That’s because getting educated for a game design job isn’t as straightforward as getting educated for a job in game art or game programming. Game design as an art and as a science draws from a lot of different skill sets from different fields. So things like storytelling, psychology, marketing, software design, human-computer interaction. Game designers actually come from a wide number of educational backgrounds because the skills you need are very diverse.

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One way to find out which educational backgrounds game designers generally tend to come from is to look at a number of current professional game designers in the industry and see what they studied in college. Fortunately I’ve already done some of this research for you. I’ll tell you what I did. I went on to LinkedIn, which is used by most people in the game industry and I took a look at 53 different professional game designers that I’ve worked with over the years. I took a look at where they went to school and what they studied and I put them together into a little report.

After doing that research, I was really surprised at what I found. I found that only 23% of the designers…so not even a quarter of them…went to school for a game design degree. I also found that 9% of them, about one in ten, don’t appear to have completed a formal degree at all. So a quarter of them got a game design degree and one in ten didn’t get any degree.

What about the other 68%? What fields did they study before becoming professional game designers? Well, here’s the break down. Fifteen percent of them studied computer science, so those ones went to school and learned computer programming and other computer-related knowledge and skills. Seventeen percent studied the humanities, like literate, English, Asian studies and economics. Thirteen percent studied art. Now art can be an important part of game design.

So I’m not at all surprised that more than one in ten professional game designers I looked at had arts degrees. Because it’s a very useful degree for design. Eleven percent of them studied in media. So in other words, radio and television, video production, things like that. Eight percent studied what we call applied science. Practical science things like engineering or electronics. The remainder had studied in IT, information technology, or business.

So how surprising is that? My little informal study shows that game designers come from an unexpectedly large number of backgrounds. But you’ll notice that most of those fields of study do contain something that can be applied directly to game design. Whether it’s making assets, like programming or art. Or knowing how to communicate with a wide audience of players. Or how to craft a story and understand how people think about the world. Most of those fields can apply pretty well to a job designing games, in one way or another.

Robert also asked how long you need to be in school to become a game designer. Well, when I did my study of professional game designers, I also researched the type of degree that they got. You can usually tell how long somebody went to school by the type of degree that they got. What I found is that a little more than half of them got Bachelor’s Degrees, which is usually around four years of study.

Only about 10% of them got a Master’s Degree, meaning that those people probably studied for four years to get a Bachelor’s Degree first and then they did two or three more years after that to get to their Master’s. The rest of them either didn’t list a degree on their Linked In profile or they got a certificate or an associate’s degree. Meaning that the remainder either didn’t go to college at all or they went for under four years.

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Okay, so that’s some data on professional designers and what they did for their education. I think that should be helpful for you. I realize it’s not a straightforward answer. I know that many of you would probably like it better if I told you exactly what to do that would guarantee that you can get a job designing games. But the fact is that game design really is a relatively new field of study. Video games as we know them today at least haven’t been around very long. So there isn’t yet a totally clear path from high school to your first job, like there is for some other jobs that have been around a lot longer, like electrical engineering or business finance or surgery.

But that is a good thing because it means that you have the flexibility to study something that really clicks with you, as long as you’re building skills that can be used in a game design job. Or if you’re positive that you want to do game design, there are more colleges and universities than ever before that offer specialized game design courses. That’s also a great option that you should definitely look into if you’re serious about game design.

If you want to learn more about game designers and education, you can find links to my full research in the show notes or visit gameindustrycareerguide.com and search for game designer education in the search box.

Thanks to Robert for this question and thank you for listening. I know that you’ve being telling your friends about this show because it’s getting more and more downloads every week. It’s growing like crazy. So I thank you for that every time I get a new subscriber, it’s really motivating to keep writing articles and to keep recording podcasts for you guys. Please keep spreading the love and telling your friends about it. If you have a question of your own, stop by the website and leave a comment or send an email and I’ll answer it on a future episode.

For more information and inspiration about 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 next time right here on Game Industry Career Guide podcast.

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Making games for a living is an incredibly rewarding career, but it’s hard to break in unless you have insider knowledge. This book levels the playing field.

READ: Start Your Video Game Career

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