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Navigating the world of professional certification and training options, alongside other dispatches from the new global workplace.

Video Game Design: Many Certificates, No Certification!

Monday, 25 November 2013

Let's face it.  A lot of us have wasted, er, invested, more hours than we can ever hope to count on video games.  They have become a large and mainstream form of entertainment throughout the world, and the workforce needed to produce the latest and greatest continues to grow.  Given the plethora of certifications available in other IT related fields, we would expect abundant credentialing options for video game designers, right?

Well, sort of...

A Google search for "video game design certificate" reveals many options.  However, they are all certificates issued by educational institutions, not occupational or trade associations.  What's wrong with this?  Nothing, except that you have to do your homework very carefully.  These certificates' curricula are set by the educational institutions, not trade associations, though some educational institutions undoubtedly do their homework on what is in demand at any particular moment.  And, it's easy to be lured in to a specific program by the attractiveness of their marketing materials.  But, buyer beware - the most attractive marketing is generally produced by for-profit institutions taking advantage of naive newbies  with big dreams and financial aid eligibility.  Some of these institutions spend 30% or more of their budgets on marketing.  Think about it: if you're going to pay for your own degree, wouldn't you want to go someplace 30% cheaper that does not advertise over someplace where you pay for the advertising that lured you in with your tuition?

Should you go to a certificate from a for-profit institution like Full Sail or Devry?  Only you can make that judgment for yourself.  One source of information that may be useful as you evaluate your options is the US Department of Education's Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which offers demographic and enrollment data on all financial-aid receiving institutions in the US (so degree-granting institutions, including credit-hour based certificate programs offered by such institutions, but generally not professional associations at this time).  How does the 5-year loan default rate compare to other institutions?  If 20% of their graduates are not even able to make ends meet enough to make the minimum payments on their loans, that could be a bad sign of the credential's labor market value.  Of course, institutions with less rigorous admission requirements are naturally going to attract students who may not be  as motivated or prepared for post-degree professional success - you can't always blame the institution - but such indicators should prompt close evaluation.

Game design, however, is certainly an alluring career choice.  By all indications, it appears that starting salaries are quite high for those with the right technical (including graphic design) skills, and it's one of few fields within the media industry that seems to offer career stability.  Yet, it's a field that also requires a lot of hard work.  Designing and playing video games are two very different activities, something that I fear may be lost on some individuals who are drawn in by the marketing for for-profit college game design certificates and degrees.  In order to give credit where credit is due and not reinvent the wheel with this blog post, a great website with well-researched information on this career path that I would recommend is Video Game Design Schools.  I would be a little cautious about following the "find a school" sponsored link on this website, but there are also links to nonprofit resources like MIT's open courseware and free general programming training.

So, back to the original question at hand.  So many certificates - so why no certification in game design from a professional or trade association?  A scholarly piece on the history of the International Game Developers Association gives us some clues.  This association considered offering certification at one point, but decided not to go down that route.  It seems that certification and the standardization that it would entail clashed a bit with the culture of the occupation - design is such an individual process, and how does one precisely define what is "good" and "bad" design?  You could certify coding ability, sure, but generalist certifications for software developers already exist for that.


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