The Weird Challenge of Starting a Career in Video Games

In the past, I’ve written about how efforts to “gamify” everything from education to customer loyalty usually miss the mark and instead come off as gimmicky and hollow to users. These problems, in my experience, tend to stem from a misestimation of what it really takes to make a game mechanic effective and engaging. The result: A poorly thought out and hastily executed attempt that has some arbitrary point or leveling system but no deeper meaning that actually hooks users.

The thinking goes that games are popular—over 155 million Americans alone play them—so if we do something even vaguely related to playing a game, our thing will be popular too.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking has infected a range of industries, and even higher education has been swept into the undertow.

It began in the early 90s with this now infamous commercial:


Today, the dialog of this Westwood College advertisement is mockingly quoted among gamers and developers alike because it is almost entirely gibberish with no real relevance to what video game development or even video game testing actually is. Even forgiving the commercial for over-glamorizing the typically tedious process of game testing—playing the same levels over and over trying to systematically break things is very different from playing it for fun and casually offering a review—what the characters discuss reveals that the program most likely lacks real substance. Would you take our car to an auto shop if the commercial talked about headlight fluid? Yeah, this commercial was like that for video game developers.

But I was a kid then, and I ate it up. I wanted to go to that school and work in the video game industry. Because video games!

We didn’t know it then, but this commercial was the beginning of the for-profit college bubble. As a whole, for-profit colleges are now widely regarded as ineffective at best and outright scams at worst. They abused financial aid programs, typically charged more than non-profit institutions, and saw a higher default rate on loans than non-profit schools, which is presumably because for-profit college grads have a harder time finding jobs. A great deal has been written on this topic that is worth reading, and this is a good place to start.

Higher Education and the Video Game Industry

So if for-profit colleges tend to be poor educational choices, what about video game degrees or programs in general? Should a young person interested in video game development pursue one of these degrees?

Minh "Gooseman" Le, one of the creators of the famed Counter Strike series, got his big break modding Half-Life.

Minh "Gooseman" Le, one of the creators of the famed Counter Strike series, got his big break modding Half-Life.

Before we give you our opinion, we should say that the overall consensus is mixed, but answers seem to skew significantly toward the answer that no, a game design degree is not worth it. You are probably better off with a computer science degree or an art degree if you pursue formal education at all. The idea is that specializing in the skills that go into making a game will give you more of the talent you need to be an effective member of the team as companies rarely hire “game designers” out of the gate. The trend seems to be that designers start by working within a specific department and grow into a management and leadership role. A Gamasutra article echoes this sentiment as does a lengthy Reddit discussion, if you’d like to start your reading now.

Beyond the video game industry, an expertise in computer science or UX design or art gives you the flexibility to work in a wide range of markets if you decide that game development isn’t for you. That might sound a little bit defeatist to a young person excited about the prospects of game development, but it’s more about having freedom to decide what’s best for you at any point in your life, whether that means a career in games or not.

The Synersteel Perspective

If you do go attend a college or university and have aspiration of entering the video game industry, your best bet from our vantage point is to enroll in a more traditional and reputable program that perhaps offers a video game development minor or elective courses. This list from the Princeton Review is a good start, and bonus: one of our core team leaders came out of one of the top ten schools on this list. Even then, his approach was to focus on a core skill that was relevant to gaming and to build from there.

Ed McMillen, one of the minds behind Super Meat Boy and the Binding of Isaac got his start with comic drawing and flash games.

Ed McMillen, one of the minds behind Super Meat Boy and the Binding of Isaac got his start with comic drawing and flash games.

For the rest of us, our entrances in the industry aren’t on some top ten list or prescribed by a formal video game education program. This is the norm for creative professions, from marketing to graphic design to game development. A formal education can help (and it helped me), but it’s not necessarily mandatory. Instead, video game companies care more about what you can do and less about the name of your degree. A college or university can give you the structure and direction you might need in your late teens and early twenties to learn new skills and get started, but with or without school, the responsibility to demonstrate your value is on you.

For that reason, we offer up this advice to young people considering a career in video games:

  • Self-direction and self-accountability is essential. This trait can be learned, and it’s also why many people in the video game industry began as self-taught hobbyists that went on to build great things with no “formal” training. If you are attending school, this means that you should be making stuff outside of class on your own time and that you should be more than comfortable Googling your way through a problem or learning a new skill from a tutorial.
  • Your portfolio matters. Your homework assignments will give you some items that are worth showing off, but again, the work you do on your own volition will not only demonstrate more depth but give you more relevant experience. Many of the successful people in the industry are lifetime tinkerers. They played with modding FPS games or hacked together a text MUD or churned out their own little games in Flash. You’d be surprised at how far those projects can take you.
  • The ability to learn something new is a valuable skill. Even as I write this, the standards of our industry are changing. That’s just the nature of anything based on technology. The programming language or the design suite you learned in school could become obsolete in a year, so you need to be comfortable with (and even welcome) the challenge of adopting a new skill. For example, our lead artist was a 3D modeler before we pivoted to pixel art, and our lead programmer is constantly adapting to changes in the mobile space. You need to be flexible, and you need to figure these things out without a teacher holding your hand.
  • There is no set “path” for a career in video games. Becoming a doctor is hard, but the steps you have to take are pretty clear. You should probably get this sort of undergraduate degree, and then do this, and then do this, and then pass these tests, and these tests to, and then you’re a doctor. For video games, you could go to school, or you could not. You could start with mods or you could start with sketching landscapes. You could focus on PC games or on mobile games. You could join an established studio or make games on your own as indie developer. The only common thread between all of the potential entry points is the unquenchable desire to build something.

If you believe that video game development is right for you, how you achieve your goals will depend largely on who you are and the resources immediately available to you. Whether you enroll in a university or not, it’s up to you to put in the work, to learn, and to be a consistent creator.