Game Education: Lipstick on a Pig?
I was just reading Mike Zyda's article in the December CACM on games and computer science education. It discusses the technical game education program they've created at USC in the CS department, and gives a nice overview of why they are doing things the way they are. Seems like a reasonable degree.
Yet, whenever I read about someone's technical game degree program, I'm always left wondering about the jobs we're pointing these students at, and the "unwritten pack" we make with students we accept into our programs. I've thought a lot about this, because the topic of a "game degree" comes up occasionally. I'm also teaching 3 game classes this semester (a game-oriented capstone, a game prototyping lab, and an augmented reality game design class), so I'm very focused on the issue of game education. Yet, with plenty of course and interest in games here at Georgia Tech, we haven't created a full-blown game degree; our game education activities are folded into a number of other degrees that offer a broader education beyond games.
This article isn't about our choices at GT, though. Rather, I interested in the opinions of others who might read this. I believe there is an implicit suggestion that, if we have a focused degree program in a technical area, it's educating the students in preparation for actually doing something. With a liberal arts education, the goal is to give a broad education, and the students understand that there aren't "liberal arts jobs" per se. But, I suspect that students don't generally get a degree in Mechanical Engineering, Information Security, or Pre-Med just because they want to broaden their horizons and open their minds; they get these sorts of degrees (presumably) because they want to work in these areas after they graduate (or move on to other degrees, in the case of pre-Med or pre-Law).
So it is, I think, with a computer science or technical game-oriented degree. Which brings me back to the topic of the post. I wonder how many "game degrees" are being created because the school honestly believes that there is an industry need they are fulfilling (industry has unfilled job positions and needs to have more folks educated to fill them) or because the university has a need they are fulfilling (the student enrollments are dropping and they need students to fill up the classes). For a number of years, CS enrollments have been down at many schools (we've been doing OK at Georgia Tech, and if you include our cross-over degrees like Computational Media, we're actually doing better than OK, both at attracting students, but also at attracting students who aren't young, white boys). Over the past few years, a number of schools have created game degrees that have attracted a lot of attention, not least because it appears that they attract a lot of students and because their graduates get to go and work in the game industry. That's all well and good; a few schools (USC's MS program in the School of Cinema TV, CMU's MS in Educational Technology, our combined undergrad and grad degrees across CS, CM and Digital Media, for example) have a great reputation with the game industry, and the students coming out of the program have generally had good success in getting the jobs they want.
But, how many schools are just putting lipstick (and new name) on a pig (their dying CS degree programs) to attract new students?
Overall, my sense is that there aren't that many great jobs in the game industry, at least not in the numbers that are needed to employ an increasing number of game program graduates. Especially the jobs many students seem to dream about (game design, game engine programming, etc.); here, I'm talking about technical and design jobs, I'm not talking about testing and QA, or level design, or content-oriented jobs (a few schools, like SCAD and RISD and so on, are doing a great job educating those students).
Unfortunately, when I read articles like Mike's, I'm reminded of the increasing trend of CS departments to offer Game Degrees (note: I'm not saying this is what USC is doing; Mike has a long history of game education, going back to the Naval PostGraduate School, and actually came to USC to create a game program in the CS department). A game degree is a great fit ... for the school. There is virtually no area of CS that isn't applicable to the technical side of a modern game, especially the blockbuster console games; these games require everything a major CS degree offers, and then some. Taking your existing CS courses, faculty, labs and infrastructure, putting some new makeup on it, and calling it a game degree can be a great way to attract students. And (based on anecdotal evidence) for many schools, it seems to be helping. Helping them, that is, attract students.
My worry, though, is that as more and more schools offer game degrees, we're going to turn out a generation of pseudo computer science students who can't get the jobs they want. After all, how many jobs are there? I was chatting with a game industry exec at a recent conference, and he joked that, given the low turn-over in the good jobs, the good opportunities number in the hundreds ... not in the thousands or more that will be needed to place these students.
So, I'd love to hear other folks thoughts on this, or get pointers to hard data about jobs and graduates.