Thursday, March 03, 2011

Culture Shock: Broken Terminology and How to Fix It

Going through the Expo floor at GDC is a rather unique experience. Like a highly expressive game (Minecraft or Sim City, for example), the experience is different for each person depending on their personal actions and goals. Students and unemployed developers looking to get jobs will be networking in the aisles, hanging out at the company booths, and maybe walking randomly through other areas to pick up swag or play with cool-looking toys. Professors network with industry on behalf of their students, and also visit the other school booths so they can all compare notes on who is best representing themselves. Exhibitors do... um... whatever they do. And so on.

Personally, I walk around looking for themes (this year I saw heavy representation of IT companies, cloud computing services, social media support services, middleware, geographic regions trying to attract companies, and schools trying to attract students - note the irony here, since most students at GDC are already at a school so it's a bit late to recruit).

School booths are interesting. Some show off student projects and allow you to play them. Others just show video. One showed a bunch of design docs and art bibles and other written works for a current student project in progress. Most have at least some printed documents talking about their academic programs, classes and curriculum. I always look at these to see what they're teaching kids these days.

One particular school I encountered, I won't name names, had a degree in "game design" (those were the exact words used). When I look at the core classes, I see: a token programming class, a level design class, and a dozen art/animation classes. Hopefully anyone reading this immediately sees the problem here. Obviously, the school did not.

I brought this to the attention of someone at the booth, who pointed me to a director-level person in the same booth. This director looked at me like I was from Mars, as if she couldn't understand why I was concerned or what the problem was. It concerns me because this isn't just a problem with a single school, it becomes a problem for every school. Imagine if a biology degree at School A was equivalent to a chemistry degree at School B, a physics degree at School C, and a science degree at School D. And biotech labs have to put this all together to figure out who actually learned the skills they need to hire. Even if just one school screws this up, the message to industry is "ignore the name of the degree on every resume you receive because it might be lying to you about what it means." But I'm an outsider to the school, and I have no influence to fix this myself, even though it totally screws me over, even if I'm teaching somewhere else.

I think the solution here has to come from industry. I would love to see more industry professionals stopping by the school booths, taking an honest look at what they're presenting, and calling them out on it -- in public, right there on the show floor, if need be -- if they are peddling the academic equivalent of snake oil. If every developer that passes through the expo takes five minutes to do this with just one school, any school that is just blatantly lying to its students about the value of its curriculum will hear that message over and over, loud and clear. So... any takers?


Unknown said...

In the spirit of calling them out, why not name the names of your example?

skysenshi said...

I know what you mean. Unfortunately, if you try to correct them from within, you get slaughtered by school politics. Figuratively speaking.

Unknown said...

Have you heard of the IGDA Curriculum Framework? I know its not cerifying schools or universities in any formal way, but at least it defines a common terminology (used by many, fortunately). And it is validated by industry.


With kind regards,

Eelco Braad
Hanze University
Groningen, The Netherlands

Luis Sopelana said...

The fact that the director-level rep was clueless about your observation and the art-driven curriculum made me wonder if perhaps many people think "design" is just a short form of "graphic design" (I've seen the case here in Mexico, language differencies notwithstanding), thus the "art" focus. Just a theory.

Ian Schreiber said...

Jasonimus: well, you see, I try to be diplomatic here. Besides, some day their marketing might improve (I'm sure the academic program itself is fine, it's just the name that bothers me) and I shouldn't burn any bridges. But since you asked, I'll give you a hint.

skysenshi: Absolutely true in most schools, though I did talk to a couple of program directors and department chairs that were able to work around the politics, at least in their departments. It depends on the school, so I guess the lesson is to pay attention to these things when deciding where to teach.

illco: If you look at the credits on the Curriculum Framework you'll see me listed as a contributor in the credits, so yes I've heard of it, but thanks for the callout anyway :). The difficulty is that I can't force schools to use it and IGDA doesn't have the resources to offer accreditation, so it's still an on-your-honor thing. As I'm saying, the problem is that a game industry hiring manager doesn't have the time to keep on top of education trends or degree programs, so by necessity all schools are thrown into the same general "game school" pot... and one poison school makes the rest of us look bad by extension.

Also to respond to a Twitter comment by @newmixtape, who asks if it'd be better to call out schools, or educate prospective students about what to look for in a school... I think the latter is certainly important, but we need both. I cannot reach every prospective student, which means some students will see a bad school, think it's good because they don't know better, not realize there are resources out there to help them see better. They go through the program, apply to industry jobs that they're totally unqualified for, and make all schools look bad. So we have to educate the schools, too... and if they won't listen, we need to do something else to MAKE them listen. (Either that or nuke them from orbit, I suppose.)

Tom Dowd said...

I'll step up an identify us, Columbia College Chicago, as the school Ian notes as having style guides and other documentation on then table, plus a project reel video and playable games. I certainly know that seeing final product is vital, but I also think it is important to showcase the process the students go through to get their.

As for the name game, I think Louis is correct. I see a number of students and professionals with an art + design background who directly equate all uses of the term design to mean some form of visual graphic design.

And yes, sometimes tho a directly involved in a program have little or no say in what their program is called.

skysenshi said...

That's the strange part, though...because scientists would argue that engineers are actually designers. And most visual designers know the difference between art and design. That's covered in their foundation subjects.

I would notice this, however, in schools that are headed by someone with a purely arts background and touches very little of real design.

Zach Gilson said...

Coming from a student's perspective, this is exactly why I didn't choose to get a degree in "game design." I did my research, learned about the good things and bad things about such a degree, and ultimately decided that the inconsistency in degree programs was just too much. Also, if the game designer market is over-saturated, the possibility of being out of work or unable to even get a job is much higher.

The biggest reason for not choosing that path was because of the industry's need to diversify. I heard countless times in my day-to-day industry watch that game companies were trying to find people from other fields, not just the typical game degree holder. If a prospective designer really wants to work in the industry, finding this information is not hard. If a student was unaware of this kind of need, that tells me that they're not paying attention to the industry or doing the proper research, which is an even bigger issue than having a bum degree.

Ian Schreiber said...

skysenshi: I think you're correct that "design" may mean different things to different people, and this is where the initial confusion comes from. I certainly don't think schools call themselves "design" out of malice. But I would say that as far as the game industry is concerned, the term "game designer" has a very specific meaning, and some game schools seem unaware or unwilling to conform. This does nothing but burn their students. So while some might make the argument that art or programming is a "correct" use of the term Game Design through some kind of lexical analysis, my point is that it is inconsistent with the industry that the students are taking the degree to get into, so the lexical argument is invalidated.

Anonymous said...

So how would you define the term "game design"? Which courses should be included in a degree in game design?

Ian Schreiber said...

Anonymous - if you look at the early posts on this blog, I had a series on my ideal game design curriculum. As for a definition of game design, check the IGDA Curriculum Framework.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Competition for students informs much of what post-K12 schools do in this century. For every well-known college or university that has no problem recruiting students, there are dozens that do have problems.

Many "game design" curricula are started by programmers or art people who are trying to find more students. Programmers are sometimes desperate, because modern students aren't going into programming or CS the way they used to.

"Game design" is a much more sexy term than "game art" or "game programming," and of course avoid that evil word "programming". I think the use of the term is deliberate, though ignorance may be involved to begin with. But people who run these programs ought to know enough to know they aren't teaching game design. It becomes deliberate, even if it began as a mistake.

I cannot imagine anything we can do to "Make" these schools use the proper terminology. We can expose specific schools as deceptive, and can help prospective students realize that deception exists (which both Ian and I have tried to do through GameCareerGuide).

In part, the attitude that "game design is easy" lurks in the background here. Game design gets no respect, even from many programmers in the game industry. They think it's all about coming up with ideas.

Adam said...

I ran into Ian at the IGDA education SIG and I'd like to share my perspective publicly.

The first time I went to GDC was as a game design student at the University of Advancing Technology in 2006. I've gone every year since then with the exception of 2010 (couldn't afford to go).

As a student, the school booths are like vultures. They were more aggressive than the head-hunters trying to get me to sign up to get a job through their agency...but at least the head-hunters were offering a service relevant to my interests. I was 15 weeks away from graduating with my BA in game design from UAT...and I had these recruiters trying to talk me into transferring to their program.

There are a few important problems this discussion brings up. Terminology and curriculum have been thoroughly discussed in the comments, but I want to bring marketing into the discussion.

This is also about how game design programs are marketed to prospective students and to professionals. The most visible marketing efforts by universities have been terrible. Remember the infamous Westwood television advertisement? This is probably because marketing department doesn't understand the game industry so they make the advertisements based on what they think the industry is like. In the process, they end up perpetuating negative stereotypes, embarrassing professional game developers, and outright lying to their prospective students about what game development is.

Lincoln Li said...

I will totally do this, as I get higher up on the ladder in the Industry.

But the schools aside, from a lateral perspective, I felt like the "Vulture" mentality was persistent in every facet of this year's GDC.

Like you said, the Expo floor was crawling with IT Companies, Middleware software, and Social Game support providers. It was as if the actual Developers got shoved to the side. Thankfully the sessions didn't take that angle, but it was a huge shock for me to go from booth to booth, and instead of enjoying the new games and technology, I see people peddling their services, and keening looking out for Developers to exploit.

I don't know if you had any similar feelings, but it's very much on par with the School situation.

PS: I should have sent a message and asked if you were going to be at GDC. I've yet to meet and have a real life conversation with you! Next year for sure!

skysenshi said...

Hello again. I would just like to ask if we could repost this on the Game Development Association of the Philippines website or ask for a similar article that you could write for us? We're experiencing the same problems with our education systems and this has been a really helpful article.

Hoping you'd say yes, hehe. Thank you very much.

Ian Schreiber said...

@Skysenshi - sure, go ahead. I should probably just slap a Creative Commons license on this entire blog...

Unknown said...

I just graduated with a B.S. in Game Design from Daniel Webster College. I would say that the curriculum was somewhat more art based, but we did have the core game design classes present. I feel that as you move on in the years you decide what you really want to focus on. I primarily like 3D modeling, but I like to first use what I've learned to understand what assets I need to create and how that will affect the game mechanics. I try not to waste too much time on making assets I will never use for my projects. Yes, some schools may have a curriculum geared more for art, but it does not mean that other classes are not available for those students to learn proper game design.