Options are Endless for Students Seeking to Design Video Games

09/11/2014 06:23 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

One of the most popular questions I am asked when speaking with video game fans is, "How can I get a job in the video game industry?" My answer to young gamers is to start in college at one of the nearly 400 higher education institutions that offers video game design programs.

To help students interested in a career in game design get started, the Entertainment Software Association releases a state-by-state list of video game programs in higher education.

In the last five years, the acceptance of video game-related studies at major academic institutions nationwide showcases the increasing student demand for these programs. Many colleges, universities, art, and trade schools across the country provide students with opportunities to learn video game design, development, and programming, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Dartmouth College, and Ohio State University.

These programs help students develop a wide range of skills, such as graphic design, coding, sound engineering, and more. A few are taking creative approaches to better prepare future game designers.

The University of Texas at Austin's Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, home of the first video game program in the U.S., is taught by video game industry executives and focuses on the creative leadership side of the industry. Revered industry leaders Warren Spector, best known for his work on the Deus Ex game series, and Paul Sams, CEO of Blizzard Entertainment, guide the curriculum and serve as part-time instructors for the academy.

By placing emphasis on the creative leadership aspects of game development, the academy teaches the management and production of games, and offers students real-world experiences in leading game development from initial concept through design and production. Working together, students get a chance to build and manage a team, design and implement a collaborative culture, and communicate across "departments."

Other programs focus on the experimental aspects of the video game industry, and how games can affect and persuade social policy. The Master of Arts in Game Design at the American University Game Lab, a hub for game education, teaches theories of play and engagement strategies for encouraging gamers to positively impact society. Part of the broader "games for change" movement, the Game Lab pushes students to design games that expand awareness of specific social issues, and promote social change.

Student projects have included tackling the challenges of learning a new language in Polyglot Cubed; designing an innovative artificial intelligence engine to make social interactions playable in Prom Week; and reevaluating common perspectives on gameplay experiences in Critical Gameplay. Programs also challenge students to develop games that can enhance all levels of education and advance creative solutions in areas such as health and science.

Students at the University of Washington can earn their Ph.D. at the Center for Game Science, working together with faculty members and industry innovators to solve cognitive problems through games that promote scientific discovery, optimize Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education, encourage cognitive skill training, and spur creativity. In recent years, the Center has made great strides in promoting citizen science. Fold.it, which pits players against one another to fold proteins into their most stable configurations, has helped scientists better understand protein structures. Other games, such as DragonBox, are enhancing early math education.

Collegiate opportunities with video games may even extend to the athletic department. Robert Morris University in downtown Chicago recently became the first school to offer athletic scholarships for eSports. Skilled players of the popular online game League of Legends can apply for one of 60 scholarships worth up to half of their tuition and room and board. School organizers see the scholarships as a way to instill teamwork, strategy, and specialized life skills, and keep students involved with the university and their studies.

These programs and others are poised for further growth and development as academics and industry leaders pursue new avenues for collaboration and strengthen existing partnerships. The Higher Education Video Game Alliance (The Alliance), which ESA helped launch in July, is a first-of-its-kind organization that will provide leading academics with a platform for sharing and highlighting best practices, publishing related research, initiating and strengthening industry connections, and educating policy makers on the crucial role video game programs play in preparing students for the wider American workforce.

The skills students develop through these programs position them for a career in the growing video game industry. Yet their value also extends beyond game development. These programs are shaping the innovators of tomorrow, who can meet the challenges and demands of a 21st century society. Students with a background in game design not only advance our industry, but also create innovative new products, found Fortune 500 companies, drive technological growth, tackle our most pressing social and scientific challenges, and keep America competitive in the future.