What Is a Video Game Design Degree?

| Blake Huggins

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A video game design degree gives you the technological and narrative skills to build virtual worlds, bring characters to life, and create immersive video game experiences.

Video games entertain us and unlock our imagination, sparking our sense of wonder and curiosity. A video game's success, however, depends on the artists, designers, and developers who create them.

The video game industry brings in billions of dollars each year. As video games continue to rise in popularity, the demand for skilled designers will similarly increase. Employment in the video game design sector is expected to grow by 8% from 2019-2029 — much faster than other occupations.

Earning a game design degree can help give you a competitive edge in this growing industry. This page compares the different types of game design degree programs and provides information on common career paths in the field.

This course develops the skills needed to create drawings and models that convey motion and tell a story. It introduces learners to object manipulation and other animation fundamentals. Enrollees learn how to develop illustrations optimized for visual media in gaming environments. Coursework explores techniques for creating key reference pieces that contribute to a game's overall look and style. This course develops the writing skills required to create compelling characters and stories in video games. Learners examine the underlying narrative elements integral to virtual world building. This course is a foundational component of any game design degree and introduces students to programming languages like C++, JavaScript, and HTML5. Enrollees learn about the key differences between graphic and network programming. Students learn to use industry-standard tools to create gaming environments. Topics include landscape modeling and object animation. This class teaches enrollees to create interactive, immersive, and responsive gameplay experiences. Coursework integrates digital rendering, animation, character development, and sound design to help each student develop their own approach to design.

What Kinds of Video Game Design Degrees Are There?

Schools with game design programs may offer undergraduate degrees, certificates, graduate degrees, or a combination of the three. Various levels of degrees mean that students, recent graduates, and experienced designers can enter or advance in the field.

Many game design roles require a bachelor's degree and some professional experience. Prospective students should carefully consider their interests and select options that support their game design career goals.


Certificate Program in Video Game Design

Certificate programs build basic skills in game design but do not result in degrees. Depending on your background and desired role, a certificate may provide you with key competencies in skills often desired by employers, such as graphics animation and programming architecture.

Certificate programs do not take as long to complete as degrees. Most students can easily graduate in a year or less to become qualified for entry-level positions in the industry.

Though some programs offer structured opportunities to build professional portfolios, this is not always the case and highlights a key difference between certificates and game design degrees. Aspiring professionals in certificate programs may want to create a portfolio to gain a competitive edge when applying to jobs. Below are some examples of game design certificates.

  • Video game design and development
  • Fundamentals of game design
  • Video game art


Associate Degree in Video Game Design

An associate degree introduces enrollees to programming and design fundamentals, including simulation modeling, animation, and gaming concept development. Associate programs combine game design coursework with additional science and liberal arts classes.

Associate programs require about 60 credits and typically take two years to complete. Graduates can then continue to a four-year institution or find employment as game testers and character animators. Below are some common associate of art degrees in game design and development.

  • Associate of arts in game development
  • Associate of fine arts in game design
  • Associate of science in video game design


Bachelor's Degree in Video Game Design

A bachelor's degree is the most popular pathway to game design. Game design degrees at this level teach both foundational and advanced concepts in the field, and usually take four years to complete. Transfer students with associate degrees should be able to complete their bachelor's degree in two years.

Bachelor's degree courses explore more focused subjects in video game design, such as interactive design, color theory, and digital imaging. Students can also choose to specialize in certain aspects of game design.

Concentrations like audio engineering and game production can position degree-holders for success as designers in corresponding subfields. The following lists a few variations of bachelor's in game design degree programs.

  • Bachelor of arts in game design
  • Bachelor of fine arts in game arts
  • Bachelor of science in game design and development

What's the Difference Between a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, and Bachelor of Fine Arts in Video Game Design?

Each bachelor's degree in game design leads to an undergraduate degree, but their curricula and learning outcomes differ significantly. A bachelor of science (BS) program emphasizes how game design interacts with technical disciplines like programming and computer science. A BS also provides basic instruction in STEM topics such as math and technology.

Bachelor of arts (BA) and bachelor of fine arts (BFA) game design programs adopt different approaches. The BA places game design within the context of the arts and humanities and includes liberal arts education. BFA programs center on fine arts, offering core instruction in art history and figure drawing.


Master's Degree in Video Game Design

Earning a graduate game design degree elevates your professional profile and explores advanced concepts in game design. These programs usually feature specializations in art, production, and programming.

Master's degrees build on undergraduate game design training and last 3-4 semesters, depending on a student's individual circumstances and the program's structure. Some programs may require prerequisite courses or a bachelor's degree in fields like information technology or computer science.

As with undergraduate options, students will have the option to obtain a master of arts (MA), master of science (MS), and master of fine arts (MFA) in game design. Portfolio or practicum requirements depend on the degree designation.

  • Master of fine arts in game design
  • Master of science in game development and design
  • Master of arts in interactive design and game development

What's the Difference Between a Master of Arts, Master of Science, and Master of Fine Arts in Video Game Design?

An MS in game design will likely include concentrations such as user experience or video game production. Capstone projects integrate scientific methods to solve applied programming problems in game design.

In MA and MFA programs, students can specialize in the visual and artistic elements of game design, like animation, interactive design, and 3D modeling. Capstone requirements may involve a studio-based project, a design portfolio showcasing the student's visual style, or a written thesis project.


Doctoral Degree in Game Studies

A doctorate is the highest game design degree attainable. Doctoral degrees involve a sequence of core courses and highly specialized research, requiring comprehensive examinations and original research projects. This can take 3-7 years to complete.

Doctoral research adds new knowledge to the field and looks to the future of the field. Many degree-holders fulfill roles as postsecondary educators, researchers, and design consultants in the video game industry.

Doctoral degrees in game design often intersect with studies in related disciplines. Some schools may offer game design as a specialization within computer science and media programming.

  • Doctor of philosophy in media and information studies
  • Doctor of philosophy in computational media
  • Doctor of philosophy in computer science

Accreditation for Video Game Design Programs

Accreditation verifies that schools meet high levels of rigor and excellence. A game design degree from an accredited school ensures the quality, value, and prestige of your diploma.

Prospective students should always research potential schools to confirm they possess institutional accreditation. Independent agencies recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation oversee this process. In game design, some programs could hold additional credentials from organizations like the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

What Can You Do With a Degree in Video Game Design?

Graduates with game design degrees can pursue many career paths. Skilled game designers take on roles at every step of the design process, including initial scripting and storyboarding, level programming, animation, and testing.

Most game designers focus on one or two areas that fit their interests and skills. Career paths for professionals with game design degrees include:

  • Video game designer
  • Audio engineer
  • Game level designer
  • Video game programmer
  • Video game tester
  • Gaming developer
  • 3D artist
  • Professional gamer
  • Character/environment concept artist
  • Videographer

What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With a Video Game Design Degree?

Salary prospects and earning power largely depend on your chosen career path. Each role detailed below typically requires a bachelor's degree. Some areas see greater pay than others, but overall, salaries remain higher than many other professions. With the median annual wage for all occupations at just over $40,000, graduates in video game design could earn more than double what their peers make.

Video Game Design Career Outlooks
Career Median Annual Salary (2020) Projected Job Growth (2019-2029)
Software Developers $110,140 22%
Art Directors $97,270 -2%
Computer Programmers $89,190 -9%
Special Effects Artists and Animators $77,700 4%
Web Developers and Digital Designers $77,200 8%
Producers and Directors $76,400 10%
Graphic Designers $53,380 -4%
Sound and Video Technicians $47,420 9%

Professional Organizations

The IGDA maintains more than 150 chapters throughout the world, bringing together developers and specialists through industry conferences and special interest groups. This association also aggregates resources and hosts a career center. The ESA enhances the video game industry by advocating for excellence in interactive entertainment and supporting new endeavors in the field. It produces policy positions on issues like privacy and digital wellness. Since 1971, AWIS has worked to improve gender equity and the advancement of women in STEM, including those in video game development. The association awards scholarships to qualified students, hosts development webinars, and conducts advocacy research. BIT increases the participation and representation of Black professionals in the tech industry. Founded in 2008, the organization hosts regional events, publicizes new job openings, and partners with key industry leaders.

Frequently Asked Questions

true What Kind of Degree Do You Need To Design Video Games?

Most roles in video game design require only a bachelor's degree and some experience. However, a graduate degree can help you cast a wider net in your job search by demonstrating more expertise.

true Is Game Design a STEM Career?

Game design is a STEM-related career and draws on key scientific and technological concepts. The field also relies on design principles explored in the fine arts.

true How Long Does it Take to Become a Video Game Designer?

With a certificate or associate degree in game design, students can become work-ready in just 1-2 years. Earning an undergraduate or graduate degree will extend this timeline.

true What Do Game Developers Do?

Game developers design the platforms, infrastructure, and user interface components that keep the gaming experience smooth yet exciting. They create key features, optimize performance, and integrate user feedback.

Blake Huggins is a Boston-based writer and researcher with roots in north Texas and southern Oklahoma. He holds degrees in religion and philosophy and writes widely on higher education, healthcare, and the humanities broadly conceived. He earned a PhD from Boston University and has taught college courses in philosophy, writing, and composition.

Header Image Credit: Maskot | Getty Images

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