Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Conflicting Goals for Game Schools

As I recover from GDC, I'll be posting all of the stuff I learned about teaching and game design. I probably have enough material to keep me busy for the next few months.

I'll start off with an inherent conflict within any sort of game-related program: the desire to attract students, and the need to only graduate the best ones.

On the need to attract students:
  • If you're at a liberal arts college that's experimenting with its first game curriculum, you need decent enrollment numbers to show student interest. If your numbers are too low, the program gets canceled.
  • More students means more funding, which translates to better equipment and more resources to help your students make great games.
  • If your school has a reputation for a 90% dropout rate because you're just that harsh to your students, you'll have a hard time attracting anyone -- even skilled students who can make it, but who might not have the self-confidence to try.
  • Failed attempts hurt students a bit too much. If you have two semesters' worth of F's, it would take seven years' worth of straight A's to get back to a 3.5 GPA (which is a requirement for some grad schools and scholarships). Without some kind of grade amnesty/forgiveness, this seems a bit harsh for a program that will obviously interest many students who aren't prepared for it.
On the need to only graduate a few:
  • The game industry is still very skeptical of game-related academic programs. Simply slapping a label like "Game Design Major" on your students will not give them any legitimacy when they look for jobs.
  • Because of this, your students are effectively representing your school and in fact all schools with game programs whenever they interact with the industry in any way.
  • Since it's such a small industry, word gets around very fast. If one company hires one of your students and later finds out they have no idea what they're doing, it will be an uphill battle for any of your future graduates since all of the major studios will "know" that your program isn't preparing its students.
  • Even applying for a job is enough to soil your school's reputation. If a student shows a game-specific Major on a resume, attached to the worst cover letter ever written, what does that say about your school?
  • The game industry is a harsh world. Treating students gently does not prepare them for cold reality. Better for students to get used to it in school, and those that can't handle the abuse will be happier in the long run to not enter the industry in the first place.
I can see both sides. So far, I've been erring on the side of helping students as best I can, because low enrollment numbers puts my department out of a job. In the future, as our program gets better established, I'd like to shift towards a "boot camp" mentality, with some low-level classes that are overly harsh. This allows students to self-select out of the sequence before they do too much damage to themselves, and guarantees that only the ones who are really serious will continue on to the more "fun" parts. But by then, we may already have a reputation for being too easy on our students, and it will take time to reverse that.

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