20120528-143642.jpgThere have been several times where we’ve been asked to talk to students about job opportunities in the gaming industry. In most cases, these conversations are hosted by a teacher or administrator who has a vested interest in Academia as a pursuit in and of itself. I think in most cases those folks wish we hadn’t come…

A recent article in Game Developer Magazine confirms what I’ve been saying for years:
…if you want a job in gaming, don’t go to college.

The GD article appears to be something you can’t get directly online but one of the most interesting parts is where they compare education levels to income. (page 12, April 2012 issue)

For a programmer:

  • “Some college” (the lowest education level reported) made an average of $104,907/yr.
  • Completed that AA? Now you average $93,676/yr.
  • Pushed through for a bachelors in CS? Now you get $88,649/yr.
  • Congratu-freaking-lations!

In case you missed it, here is some perspective: the guy who busts his chops to finish a CS degree and takes on some $thousands in debt earns 16% less then the cowpoke who applies right out of high school. For programmers, “some graduate” work equated to a higher salary but any education beyond that, like actually finishing that masters degree, means less money. For artists it’s even worse – just a steady decline for every day you spend in school. The curves for both design and production follow similar curves to programmers and the only place where education seems to be valuable is on the business side. In the design track the fresh young face with zero higher education averages $79,500 while the same person with ‘some doctoral’ work averages only $67,500.

Weird eh?

Well maybe not. I can only speak for myself and this company, but for my part the results aren’t unexpected. But before I go on I want to make something clear – I love higher education and see it as a valuable end for its own reasons. I have a BA in history and I interrupted my computer career specifically to study something I simply enjoyed. It was a time of significant personal, emotional and spiritual growth. I will happily recommend the experience to anybody who wants to be a better, more rounded human being. What I do not like, is the way in which higher education is currently sold as a way to acquire job skills. The old mantra “get a good education so you can get a good job” is increasingly misleading, especially for anybody who wants to work in a technical field.

In the gaming world, your value is correlated with your chops, your experience, and nothing else. I couldn’t care less want you’ve studied if you’ve never been able to apply it. And in many cases, a 4 year degree only teaches you a bunch of stuff that I will specifically need to UN-teach you before you’re useful in the rapidly changing world of game development. What’s more, my experience with college grads isn’t only that they have no useful skills, but that they come to the table thinking they know something valuable and are therefore resistant to being taught the bitter reality of their situation. In other words, they presume they are smarter than their “uneducated” supervisor…and hilarity ensues.¬†I don’t know, but I suspect this same kind of thing is happening in all kinds of technical fields across the country and perhaps the world. The techniques are simply evolving too rapidly for any multi-year program to keep current, it’s simply impossible.

So with that in mind, let me get back to what my typical “advice” to high school seniors might be regarding college and the gaming industry – and it might not be what you’d expect from reading this post up to this point:

Go to college…

But don’t go to learn about some job you think you’ll love. The reality is that nobody at 18 years old knows who they are much less what their deep joy is. Don’t allow college to become a cultural obligation, nor simply the next thing you do because you don’t know what else to do. Go to college to explore, to experiment and to learn about yourself. You’ll come out as a much more interesting person – and a more valuable one. The university experience, when it’s seen as a powerful personal experience, is truly valuable. But it’s actually counterproductive to the goal of working in the gaming field.

…and learn your trade on-line, for free.

Working in this industry is a genuinely good option. It’s fun, it’s creative, it’s growing, and it pays pretty darn well. Seeing how we all need to figure out how to earn a living, doing some kind of game development is a pretty solid option. But everything you want to learn is readily available on all manner of websites, iTunes videos, etc. Get really good at the craft of video games in your own time and practice+practice+practice. Your portfolio is everything, your list of completed classes is nothing.

So again, to reiterate, I’m in no way a college-hater. I just know that college dos not give you job skills in my field. Use the right tool for the job and everybody is happy…except for the poor high school teacher who invites me to address their graduating students next time.

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3 Comments
  1. Tami

    This was really eye-opening (especially since I just started classes again after a couple years off). If it’s okay that I ask, what’s your take on the influence that a Master’s specializing in User Experience Design might have on my desire to be a UI/UX Designer, Usability Researcher or something related?

    I know I’ve got to build up my portfolio, but I also ask because my program’s pretty hands-on, so I’m wondering if that’ll mitigate the “just out of college” effect? Or does the decline in pay still apply?

    Either way, thank you so much for this. I found out about your website while researching CGDC. Great site – I’m loving it already. ūüôā

    • Hi Tami, I suspect the cutting edge in this issue is the timeliness of what you’re learning. If what you’re learning in school is still applicable when you get out then school will benefit you. As a specific example, in the same salary survey noted here, artists get paid more with more school – the opposite of the programmers. So I think the fundamental issue is time. The programming world is evolving faster than the schools that teach the stuff, I don;t think art and design are the same because those disciplines are more based on timeless principles and hands-on practice then they are about a specific piece of software that will be out of circulation in 20 weeks.

  2. What, you mean that fisheries degree and poli sci degree I got won’t equate to cash in the game industry?! Great post Chris and I totally agree. Go for the degree to stretch and grow. Go make something then and don’t expect someone to have a job waiting for you. Better yet get a group of knuckleheads together and start your own company. It is not safe but it sure is a blast!!

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