Do You Need a Degree to Work in Games?

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Recently, the International Game Developers Association reported that 40 percent of the respondents to its Developer Satisfaction Survey hold an undergraduate college degree, while 20 percent have a graduate degree and 15 percent hold some kind of trade diploma. A little over half have taken supplemental training in game design in either high school or college.

By the numbers, then, it would appear degrees count when it comes to building a career in games. But how much?

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“A degree is always helpful” says Mike Reifers, founder of Game On! Recruiting in Templeton, Calif. “But it’s really only necessary for engineering roles. Once you’re working at a game company, talent, experience and contributions are most important.” Four-year degrees are most useful in roles like engineering, marketing, business development and management, he says. “It’s less important for art and design roles, where a two-year degree could be sufficient.”

TJ Summers, co-founder of placement firm Digital Artist Management in El Segundo, Calif., agrees. However, he adds, “it’s a very competitive environment for art and design talent, as well. You need a really strong foundation. Having a computer graphics design degree or traditional art degree makes a difference.”

What About Pay?

How much will a degree impact your pay? Probably not all that much. “You wouldn’t get the job without the bachelor’s degree, but I don’t think there’s really a direct correlation to a pay increase,” says Summers. “Salary rises via your skills and overall value to an organization, but there’s no formula like one you might find in other industries.” Reifers says he’s seen higher pay go to some engineers at senior levels or with advanced degrees, as well as graduates from top computer science programs. For other roles, he says, “if you pass the interview process and are hired, a degree doesn’t necessarily equate to a better offer.”

Once you’ve got the job, you’re going to be judged primarily on your work. Advancement, says Summers, all depends on what you accomplish as you develop your skills and seniority. He strongly advises younger workers to take advantage of any mentoring or training programs offered by their employer.

As for non-degree training, Reifers calls its value “debatable.” Such programs, he says, “are most useful to teach someone the tools, art or design packages and help them establish some experience or a portfolio.”

Of course, the game industry is deep and wide, and Summers sees places for those who don’t have traditional computing, engineering or art degrees. “You can get experience and build a portfolio by collaborating and working with other people,” he says. “Work on your own projects. There’s so much software that’s easily available to build a calling card. But that being said, if you don’t have any kind of degree, you’d be the exception, not the rule.”

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