A career in game design… not just for kids

Gavin Atkins examines the skills required to succeed in the video game industry, and identifies 10 of the top game design schools in the world…

ONE of the hardest things for a student wanting to find a career in the video games industry is explaining to your parents exactly how far this industry has come since the days when your father used to play games on his Atari.

If your parents still think that video games are just for kids, maybe they need to learn a thing or two. Try out some of these for starters:

·         The video game industry, or interactive entertainment as it is formally known, is the fastest growing media sector in the world.

·         It now earns around US$40 billion per year globally and has surpassed the music industry. In fact, in the United State, the video game industry is now larger than the music industry and the movie industry combined.

·         Video gaming revenue has doubled in the last 10 years and, staggeringly, nine video games are sold, on average, every second of the day in the United States. One of the biggest growth areas in the industry is wireless devices such as cell phones, and personal digital assistants. No less than 42 per cent of heads of households play games on a wireless devices compared to just 20 percent in 2002.

·         There are more than 11 countries where video game revenue exceeds $US 1 billion and some analysts predict the industry may double in size again by 2015.

·         The industry directly employs over 32,000 people in the US alone, and has increased at an annual rate of nearly 9 percent. Those people earn an average yearly income of $89,781. There are around another 88,000 people employed by the industry indirectly in the US. Gaming technology has moved to other industries, ranging from health care to defence, where it is used for education and training.

In short, the belief that the industry is a passing fad for kids is way off the mark. The average game player is 34 years old and is getting older every year. It’s an industry that is just as big as many traditional industries, but continues to grow and change, which means that new opportunities are constantly being created.

Talented and creative people in game design are always in demand, but there is more to it than that. The most successful game designers have to bridge the gap between technology and art, and have the ability to communicate with a team to bring the project to fruition.

As the industry matures, breaking into it has become even more competitive. For that, you’re going to need a qualification

There are some key skills you’ll need to have before you can enter the field and make an impact on the video game market.

Writers and creators – For most video games, there’s a team whose job it is to write the story and develop the ideas for the game. People with creative flair are highly valued, but they must be able to supplement this with a technical understanding of what’s possible and what is not. The best game story writers are people who are creative, but also play a lot of games and have strong ideas about what makes a good video game.

Programmers – Programmers are essential for providing the basics of any good video game design job. You’ll need to learn a combination of three to five different programming languages to be really successful in this job, such as C++, Java and Visual Basic. The skills required are always changing, so it’s vital to be up to date with the latest techniques.

Animators – Computer animators are the people who make the images come to life. These people need to be able to combine wizardry with computer and game design software like C++, Maya, 3DS Max with artistic skill and vision. Computer animation requires not only the technical expertise of a programmer, but the visual, artistic mastery of a story writer or sketch artist. This job offers the best of both worlds in the video game design industry

In between these roles, there are a vast number of specialist positions available in the industry and these change as the technology changes. Whether it’s games for cell phones or 3D games, the skill sets required are always changing. There are even jobs for actors and voice actors.

To get an idea of the skills that are in demand, it is a good idea to have a look at video game job boards on the internet. These positions range from engineers, lead programmers, technical directors, artists and animators, musicians, video game designers, creative directors or lead designers, producers, executive producers, quality assurance people, game testers, video game audio technicians, sound designers or sound engineers. One thing is for sure, the skills that are in demand can change extremely quickly, and the well qualified have a distinct advantage in a fast-changing industry.

In an increasingly professionalized environment, more and more people in the video games industry are expected to have formal qualifications. Here are some of the best games development schools around today.


Situated not far from Seattle, in Redmond, Washington, DigiPen Institute of Technology is rapidly becoming a world-renowned leader in education and research in computer interactive technologies. Originally a US operation, in the last couple of years DigiPen has opened new campuses in Singapore and Bilbao (Spain) to become a truly global operation. With its main campus in the same town as the headquarters of Microsoft, you can be assured that DigiPen is at the very heart of the computer industry. DigiPen is dedicated to fostering academic growth and inspiring creativity in all its students. It has already developed a formidable reputation in the industry, with graduates such as Kim Swift, famous for developing the award-winning game, ‘Portal’. DigiPen’s degree programs are all offered on-site and in person to provide students with an optimal level of instruction, support, and collaboration. The emphasis is on developing foundational skills and knowledge rather than on any particular software packages or tools. Many of the projects mimic team-oriented workplace environments and require the students to work collaboratively. DigiPen faculty come from a broad range of professional and educational backgrounds with experience in academia; game and animation industries; electrical and computer engineering; and the fine arts. A qualification from DigiPen is not just rated highly by employers, but also by the Princeton Review which ranks it amongst the very top video game design programs in the United States. Visit the website.


Southern Methodist University – Guild Hall is in Dallas, Texas, one of the United States’ hubs for video game development. It has rapidly developed one of the premier graduate video game education programs in the United States. Historically SMU students have had a 95 percent placement rate, and graduates work at over 100 of the industry’s leading video game companies around the world. Many of the school’s founders and teachers are industry icons. Their program offers a Master’s degree in Interactive Technology and a graduate Professional Certificate. International students can enter the course by completing an application essay and a portfolio that will be evaluated by faculty and industry professionals.  Visit the website.


Video game design has been taught at USC for 20 years, making it one of the international pioneers in this field. In fact, according to the Princeton Review, it is not only a pioneer in video game design studies, it is also the number one education provider in the field. California is the world headquarters for video game production and USC graduates are now in the most senior positions in the industry. USC has close links with game studios located in and near Hollywood – for instance, Electronic Arts has donated $8 million to the university’s interactive entertainment program.  Graduates Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen have created games such as ‘flOw’ and ‘Flower’ for the PlayStation Network, and ‘The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom’, recently released on Xbox Live, was a thesis project for students Matt Korba and Paul Bellezza. Visit the website.


If creative arts are your thing, then the Art Institute – Vancouver will have the course for you. Canada offers plenty of opportunities for advancement in the industry with more than 14,000 people now directly employed by more than 247 Canadian video-game companies. Canada is in fact the world’s third largest centre for video-game development talent, behind only the United States and Japan. Vancouver’s Art Institute offers a range of courses, but is developing a reputation for the quality of its offerings in video gaming. Most recently, students took out top awards at the inaugural Canadian Awards for Electronic and Animated Arts (CAEAA). The awards honoured outstanding achievements in talent development, animation, and video game development. The institute offers a range of specialist diplomas and certificates, offering qualifications ranging from music to animation. Visit the website.


MIT is simply one of the world’s most phenomenal research universities, boasting no fewer than 76 alumni who have won the Nobel Prize. If you want to take your qualification in game development to a whole different level, MIT’s Comparative Media Studies (CMS) degree could be for you. Both the undergraduate and graduate programs manifest a commitment to thinking across media forms, theoretical domains, cultural contexts, and historical periods. Both programs encourage the bridging of theory and practice through course work and participation in research projects. Any MIT qualification is highly regarded, and alumni are currently working as game designers, producers, and executives at a number of game studios including Electronic Arts, Activision and Midway. Visit the website.


The Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy is a graduate video game design school at the University of Central Florida offering an accredited master’s degree in interactive entertainment. Areas of study include game design, development, art, programming and production. FIEA has a unique history. In 2004, Electronic Arts approached the University of Central Florida and let them know that there was a critical shortage of first-rate video game programmers, artists and video-game producers to keep pace with the growing demands of the video game industry. EA then assisted the university in setting up the new Academy. As a result of its close industry links, FIEA has become prominent in a short period of time, and if you can think of a recent famous video game, there is a good chance that the names of FIEA graduates can be found in the credits. Visit the website.


Situated in Austin, Texas, St Edward’s University offers a number of qualifications for those looking to find leadership positions in game companies. Though Texas has long been known for its music and film industries, currently the most dynamic digital media business growth in Texas is found in Austin’s gaming industry, which has the third highest concentrations of video game companies in America. In addition to being a stand-alone program, the courses comprising the undergraduate Digital Media Management major have been designed to provide a foundation for students who want to pursue the MBA in Digital Media Management upon graduation. Graduates of St Edward’s can find work in major studios within the city, but are also to be found in major studios around the world. Visit the website.


Columbia College Chicago is the largest and most diverse private arts and media college in the US. The Game Design major in Interactive Arts and Media provides an understanding of the aesthetics, theory, and culture of games that informs their work and encourages originality in content. Game Design majors learn how to work in a production environment in which teams work together effectively to create games. Students in the Game Design major complete the Interactive Arts and Media core before enrolling in Game Design courses that accentuate the cultural aspects of game design, game design theory, and concept development. Students then select one of four concentrations in Animation, Game Development, Programming, or Sound, providing the depth of specialization that the game industry demands. Graduates of Columbia College’s Interactive Arts and Media department have found renown in game companies such as Dreamation, Jellyvision, RedEye Studios, WMS Gaming and Liquid Generation. Visit the website.


If you are an artist who wants to gain a prestigious qualification while enjoying the full New York experience, it would be hard to go past Manhattan’s world famous School of Visual Arts. SVA was established in 1947 and now boasts a huge list of notable artistic alumni who have worked in everything from animation, fine arts, photography, film and video and music. Most recently the tradition has continued with a number of digital art pioneers and computer game designers making their mark in the industry. SVA is a member of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD), a consortium of 36 leading art schools in the United States. Visit the website.


Atlanta’s Georgia Institute of Technology is one of the nation’s top research universities, consistently ranked in U.S. News & World Report’s top 10 public universities. Georgia Tech has offered a master’s degree in digital media since 1993. In 2004, the school expanded its offerings by launching both a Ph.D. program in digital media and an undergraduate degree in computational media. As a pioneer in digital media education, Georgia Tech now has alumni in senior positions in video gaming companies around the world. Because of the reputation it has built up over this time, digital media courses at Georgia Tech are highly sought after. A qualification from Georgia Tech is renowned within the industry, and often considered a stepping stone to senior production management. Visit the website.

Gavin Atkins is a communications graduate based in Sydney, Australia who has worked in various positions at universities for more than 10 years, including a period as a House Parent in an English Language Centre.