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Teacher's Lounge: Insider Views on Games Education

Five leading professors discuss the growth of games education and what needs to happen to better the industry

The video game industry is well over 30 years old, but it hasn't been until the last decade or so that we've truly seen colleges and universities taking game design curricula seriously. As the education sector comes to grips with the fact that gaming is a massive global business, more and more games education programs have been popping up at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Education can have a big impact on shaping the minds of the game designers of tomorrow, and the industry can only benefit from the continued evolution and improvement we've been seeing in academia.

To find out more about the state of games education, where it's headed and what is still lacking, GamesIndustry International assembled a panel of five top professors in the field. Answering our questions in the panel below are:

  • Drew Davidson (Director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University)
  • Tracy Fullerton (Chair of USC's Interactive Media & Games Division and Director of USC Game Innovation Lab)
  • Magy Seif El-Nasr (Associate Professor and Director of Game Educational Programs and Research at Northeastern)
  • Katherine Isbister (Research Director, Game Innovation Lab at Polytechnic Institute of NYU and Associate Professor, NYU School of Engineering Computer Science and Engineering Department and Tisch Game Center)
  • John Romero (Creative Director at UC Santa Cruz's master's in games and playable media)

GI: The games industry has grown and matured quite a bit, even in the last several years. How has games education evolved with it, and what directions would you like to see it go?

Drew Davidson: I think we've seen an explosion of programs focused on games, so there are more opportunities and variations. There are also a lot of conferences and several groups focused on building community. What has been nice to see is a deeper exploration of the affordances of games and what they can do (and what we can do with games). Personally, I'm interested in seeing more of the exploration on the diverse potential that games have as an expressive experience.

Tracy Fullerton: I agree with Drew, that we are seeing an explosion of programs, and that it would be great if that means that we see even more diverse exploration of games as an expressive form. I would say though, that some of the most important evolution that has occurred in the past decade has not been in the number of programs, but in the depth of programs. In order to give students the skills and the aesthetic perspective they need to do that exploration, what is needed is to provide an environment with depth in many of the various disciplines that intertwine to feed game design. By that I mean not just mechanics and programming and visual design, though these are critical, but also sound and music and storytelling and UX and business and media history and theory and more. I think that as programs evolve and grow, we are naturally providing more depth in all of these critical, interdisciplinary areas and that means that our students are becoming more articulate media makers all around.

"I think since the 1990s, game education and the intellectual discourse around games has changed considerably - we are going towards more depth, and evolution of many sub-areas"

Magy Seif El-Nasr

Magy Seif El-Nasr: I agree with Tracy and Drew. I think the number of programs is going up, the number of universities adopting or changing to adopt game programs is on the rise. This has stimulated many interesting discussions and learning within the university community of how to structure programs to allow us to deliver the best possible education in such a rapidly evolving field. I think since the 1990s, game education and the intellectual discourse around games has changed considerably - we are going towards more depth, and evolution of many sub-areas. For example, we see the growth of theory and techniques around sub-areas of: game narrative, business models within the game industry, history of games, game user research, and game analytics. I think that such growth will continue and we will see these sub-areas mature with their own theories, techniques, and methods.

Katherine Isbister: One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet explicitly, is the tremendous excitement around the rise of small-scale, 'indie' style game development efforts. This has affected student ambitions, and the skillsets they need in order to succeed if they choose this path. At NYU, there are a few things we've done to set up a good environment to cultivate these skills--creating a very strong bridge to NYC-area indie developers through talks, workshops, curated game exhibitions, and inviting them to come visit our classes, review student work, and even teach as adjunct lecturers. From the student side, we've tuned curriculum to address indie challenges and concerns, including a 'biz dev' class that focuses on small studio practicalities. We are also putting together an incubator program to help some students on the path out of the program get a bit more time to develop and launch their games.

In terms of where I'd like to see game education go, I'd like to see us pioneering new gaming paradigms from a technical point of view. We do a lot of this kind of work in the Game Innovation Lab and encourage the students to be thought leaders in innovating and incorporating new technologies into the play experience. One of my favorite projects is our Artist in Residence Kaho Abe's game project that is exploring the notion of Costumes as Game Controllers.

John Romero: I agree with Katherine's approach focusing on the rise of the indie. Now more than ever we are witnessing a wave of indie game developers and their innovative ideas burst onto the scene. We believe that indie developers lead a more fulfilling career if they can sustain themselves in their own game company. If they decide to enter industry and work at one of the "mothership" companies such as EA, Ubisoft, 2K, etc. they are a more capable and valuable resource due to their ability to "do it all".

We have set up a great working and learning environment for indie developers at UCSC in the G+PM MS program. We have a stellar advisory board stocked with successful indie developers, an intensive Games & Playable Media Studio where students focus on innovation and design, and valuable lectures ranging from Object Design to Starting your own Game Studio, and all the business aspects required to do so. We have guest lecturers, and a Greenlight Committee that reviews each step of the GPM Studio games development process.

We focus on small teams so each member is a highly active participant. A huge benefit of our program is that we have teamed up with San Jose State University to provide a massive amount of art. Our first cohort has 20 artists on each team. This symbiotic relationship helps our students deliver a great-looking game they can be proud of. Even better, they are nearby so they can have face-to-face meetings anytime.

I would like to see more emphasis on pure design, particularly how to think in an innovative way that generates new ideas that are powerful. I believe the game education industry needs to focus more on design, as most developers that graduate with a bachelor's have spent most of their time learning how to code or how to draw and animate, and much less time on how to fully design a great game.

GI: Game design programs at different universities can be highly competitive with one another. Is this ultimately to the detriment of the industry? Would you like to see collaboration, and if so, what kinds of things would you like to see happen?

Drew Davidson: Well it does have the potential to isolate programs as we compete for the best students to apply, and for companies to recruit to hire our grads. For the game industry, I think this means there is talent from which to choose. That said, there's been a strong counter to this in the field, as the people involved in game education programs are some of the nicest, most supportive colleagues I've ever worked with. The advances in how games are being taught is in a large-part because of the support and discussions we all have together. Plus, as programs have grown, with some older ones, and new ones starting, we've seen how programs start having approaches that are reflective in the faculty and curriculum (which gets me excited about my answer for #1 in terms of pushing games in new directions).

"The most important element is the success of the graduate. We focus an inordinate amount of our energy on creating great developers who are very capable in several areas."

John Romero

Tracy Fullerton: I think there is a kind of healthy interplay between competition and cooperation among programs. The history of many of these programs is that many of us have known each other and even worked collaboratively in industry before moving into academia. So, there is a foundation of respect and trust and a common interest in providing excellent opportunities for students to develop and for new ideas to come to fruition that can really change the industry. We have developed many common ideas and best practices, and we come together at venues like GDC and Indiecade and share new ideas casually all the time. Also, we have some formal collaborations with classes between schools that have synced projects - as an example, at USC, we have had our students working collaboratively with Berklee College of Music for about five years. More recently we've set up synced projects with groups like Laguna College of Art and Design and as far away as Atlantic College in Puerto Rico.

Magy Seif El-Nasr: I would add that I think that most programs are starting to figure out their own focus area based on their faculty and their university strength and use that to develop their strategy to deliver a curriculum that is unique and will provide a unique advantage to their students. For example, at Northeastern we just approved a masters degree that focuses on Game User Research and Game Analytics since this plays to the strength of our faculty and also Northeastern's strength in affective science, network and data science, and complements our MFA degree in Information Design and Visualization as well as our PhD in Network Science.

Katherine Isbister: My feeling is, a rising tide floats all boats. As others have said, growth of the area overall means we get the luxury (and also necessity) of fine-tuning what our programs have to offer, and having signature specialties and environments that meet different kinds of student needs. It's a great time to be a game development educator!

John Romero: I agree with all of the above. We are all friends, and are happy there's so much demand we can have so many programs. It's a great time to be teaching game development, and the field is so wide and diverse that building a unique program that can attract students is not a difficult feat. The most important element, however, is the success of the graduate. We focus an inordinate amount of our energy on creating great developers who are very capable in several areas.

GI: The games business is still predominantly operated by white males. Making the industry more diverse and inclusive can only be a good thing, and much of the effort has to start with education, right? How can universities attract more women and minorities to study game design?

Drew Davidson: This is something we discuss often, I think it's important to actively recruit and support diversity. Several companies (like EA, Google, Microsoft) offer scholarship opportunities for women and minorities. We also try to have a diverse faculty to lead the way (and invite a range of guest speakers to inspire our students) and we do a lot of community outreach, visiting schools to inspire kids from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds to aim for college and careers in the creative industries. And at an international level, we work to consider the perspectives of cultures from around the world as our students come from all over, and this diversity only enhances what people do when they make and play games.

Tracy Fullerton: This is one of the reasons I'm in academia now, to be honest. Because I can make more difference here than I can as an individual working in industry. I think that all of the strategies Drew mentioned are very important. One other thing I think needs to be stressed is that it's critical to create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive for diverse individuals once you've attracted them to come study with you. It's one thing to say you want diverse students, it's quite another to make your community a place where they actually feel comfortable expressing that diversity in the ways that bring important changes to the actual creative work that is being done. So, for example, if you have a very traditional hard core gaming culture in your program, you're not going to see much change come out of the several diverse students you attract. On the other hand, if you can build a culture where diverse gaming itself is celebrated, in many different forms and situations, then I think you will not only attract diverse students, you will have a place where they can do work that expresses these new perspectives we're looking for.

Magy Seif El-Nasr: This is a very important topic. I think there are many strategies that have been tried in the past but with little success. I agree with Tracy about culture. But culture needs to be accommodating in both our programs as well as in the industry. We can increase the diversity of our own program, but I think the industry also needs to work hard to make sure that such efforts will not go to waste. So what is the industry doing to make their environments more inclusive?

Katherine Isbister: We take the sorts of steps that Drew and Tracy describe. One great recent initiative has been the Different Games conference, hosted at NYU. I was on a panel there called 'Mentor Confidential', in which we shared tips for students and developers on how to make the most of the mentors that come along in their lives. The other sessions covered a range of topics related to building better diversity in the industry. Hosting events like these creates a virtuous cycle in which we attract and can then encourage students from all backgrounds, ethnicities, gender identification, to apply to our program.

John Romero: Diversity in the faculty, diversity in the students, and diversity in the game designs are what we are all about at UCSC. There is no focus on traditional hardcore console development, or anything else considered traditional. We let the students decide what kind of design they want to explore, and help them achieve it through our experience. Our program is headed up by a woman and a Hispanic/Yaqui & Cherokee Nation male who are active voices in those communities.

GI: How do you approach teaching game design when so many different and varied experiences can be considered games? Doesn't it come down to what you define as a video game?

"We are building creative leaders, not just game designers, and in order to succeed as leaders, they need to be able to manage the social and emotional aspects of creative teams as well as the technical and aesthetic"

Tracy Fullerton

Drew Davidson: We're more agnostic on that (in terms of parsing the definition of what a game is). We focus more on teaching students how to design for the experience they want a user/guest/player to have. Our program focuses on entertainment technologies across the board (so games, film, location-based, mobile, etc) and how these can be applied to a variety of fields (entertainment, education, medical, civics, etc). So we work to do hands-on project-based work with interdisciplinary teams with a focus on rapid prototyping and interactive problem solving. There's a variety of ways that we go about this, but I believe our special sauce is that everyone (programmers, artists, designers, producers, musicians, etc) has to take improv together. Not be be funny or a better actor, but to learn how to share space, share credit, share ideas. And how to create together. It's a wonderful brainstorming paradigm and one of the ways we approach how to best make engaging games and experiences.

Tracy Fullerton: Since we've already established that one of the missions of game programs is to spur new forms of gameplay, not to simply train students to recreate today's or yesterday's games, it should be pretty obvious that we're not interested in locking down one solid definition of videogames, but rather exploring ideas around games on many platforms and in many situations. Some might be called videogames, others might not be recognizable as such, but use core principles of play and games put to work in a different form. As Drew already mentioned, we focus on process with prototyping and iterative design at the center of that process. Also, we practice what we call "reflective process" where we discuss and analyze the decisions made at each step, so that the students begin to develop a consciousness of their own strengths and weaknesses within that process and can work on these areas specifically. We are building creative leaders, not just game designers, and in order to succeed as leaders, they need to be able to manage the social and emotional aspects of creative teams as well as the technical and aesthetic.

Magy Seif El-Nasr: I agree with both Drew and Tracy. We usually start with process, understanding the kind of experience you want to develop, understanding your users, and develop the idea through rapid prototyping and iterative design. We also include classes on board game design, physical prototyping, and critiquing of current game designs. But the idea is to push the current game designs and allow students to think freely of experience and interaction design as they compose their game ideas.

Katherine Isbister: We do many of the things others have mentioned. One way we've gotten at 'what is a videogame' is our course Games 101, which is required of all MFAs (and our undergrad minors). We realized that not all students came into our program with the same degree of game literacy. Many thought they were experts when they'd only played one or two genres, and might have had no historic sense of where digital games came from. The course covers everything from ancient games to sport to the latest indie games, and covers all major genres. It was great fun to put together, and helps give the students some kind of a 'canon' to reference as they dive into their design practice.

John Romero: Agree with the above, but we also do teach students how traditional games are made, because some of them actually do want to get into console development, PC-focused design, or mobile design. We teach core game mechanics by having students design and build many physical board games - one a week. We allow them to explore game design however they like, within reason, but we are also very aware that many students want to learn advanced techniques of making the kinds of games they love to play, and they feel if they have that kind of education they should be able to get an industry job. Other students are excited to explore the indie lifestyle, artgame world, or board game industry.

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James Brightman


James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.