High school graduates interested in studying game design may wish to pursue a degree in the field and get hands-on experience with coding, writing, and programming games. At PAX East back in April, I had the pleasure of speaking with some of the students from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Interactive Media & Game Development program. I wanted to learn more, so I got in touch with the team at WPI to take a deeper look at what they do inside the game development program.
I was able to speak with two current students, Justin Gaborit and Brendan Horack, as well as the Director of Interactive Media and Game Development at WPI Gillian Smith. They revealed how the university works to get prospective developers and programmers ready for their potential roles in the games space, as well as gave me a clearer look at the priorities of the people looking to break into this field after graduation.
Inspiration for Studying Game Design Can Come from Anywhere
Justin Gaborit is a student in the Interactive Media & Game Development program at WPI who I met at PAX East back in April. On the show floor, he was showcasing a game he had been working on: Tuber, an endless runner where you avoid obstacles and grow your score as you run down a tubular level with occasional biome shifts, bringing you from trees and greenery to the prickly cacti of the desert. I had a blast playing Tuber, and could tell very quickly that Gaborit had an eye for games that were fun, engaging, and accessible.
"I really got into game design when I was younger because I was into roleplaying games," Gaborit said, referencing some of his favorites like Fallout 3 and Thief. "My dream job would be to work on a big roleplaying game as a content designer or programmer."
He has also made contributions to other games such as Jumpstart Triage, a simulation developed in partnership with Massachusetts Digital Games Institute and Yale School of Medicine to help train EMTs and other first responders in mass casualty response, as well as Trials of Midnight, a roguelike where you battle through a mystical dream world using deckbuilding skills.
The other student I spoke with, Brendan Horack, started on a programming track as well, but soon switched over to production when he realized his skillset was better suited for that program. Horack's goal is to work on games that resonate with their audience and have a lasting effect on the people who play them.
"My first game console was a Game Boy," Horack said. "I like Mario, I think everyone likes Mario. We got a Wii when it came out and one of my favorite games was Lego Star Wars. It was so cool seeing two mediums I loved coming together. More recently I've found a lot of fun in games like Sea of Thieves, that's probably my favorite game to play with friends."
One of his earliest inspirations for going into a video game career track came from an unlikely but wholesome source: his grandfather.
"My grandfather clips out news articles sometimes," Horack said. "He clipped out an article about a Boston-based company that was making a game software focusing on helping kids with ADHD. I thought there was potential for me to do something serious in it."
Horack has struggled with ADHD himself throughout his life, and he recognized how helpful games geared toward helping people with different ailments could be.
Both Horack and Gaborit showcase impressive talent and drive, with Horack's LinkedIn profile describing himself as "competitively determined." Still, even with the talent and resources of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute behind them, the concept of imposter syndrome is something that always lingers in the back of their minds.
Does Imposter Syndrome Ever Go Away?
Every field creates some level of imposter syndrome: the feeling that you're not qualified to do the job you're actually doing, you're just pretending. Everyone can experience this, and a healthy level of fear can help someone strive to continually improve at whatever career they hope to pursue.
"I go through quite a bit of imposter syndrome," Horack said. "At PAX East at the Made In Mass event, I talked with a lot of great people with production jobs in the industry. I kept thinking, 'Am I good enough?' There's a lot of existential fear when it comes to getting a job."
From the production end of things, his focus isn't as hands-on with the tangible elements of games, but rather ensuring projects keep on track and that deadlines are met. When asked what he would like to work on, he mentioned his dislike of projects built in the blockchain, but overall his answer was simple and poignant.
"I want to work in games. As long as I can find that job and find a community I'm working with; I want to find a place I can be happy. That being said, if Rare wants to offer me a job and I can go work on Sea of Thieves, I'll do that."
Gaborit had similar sentiments when it came to the type of work he wants to do and the priorities he keeps in mind as he gets closer to graduation.
"What I prioritize is, 'Am I enjoying what I'm doing? And do I know what I'm doing? Am I happy?' It's a lot of different things to be juggling." - Justin Gaborit, student at WPI
Preparing for a Career in Video Game Development
As students approach graduation, there's a lot to consider in terms of what kind of career they want to pursue, what experiences they'd like to have, and who they'd like to work with. WPI has resources in place to help students after graduation, in addition to preparing them during their time in school.
Gillian Smith, Director of Interactive Media and Game Development at WPI, has been working in higher education for over a decade, and she teaches Computer Science, Artificial Intelligent, Novel Interface, and introductory courses for non-majors. She uses her experience and the team of faculty she manages to help the students be prepared for their future careers in the gaming space.
"Our faculty has very mixed backgrounds," Smith said. "Some from very academic backgrounds, and others with core industry experience – working on game production, game writing. Our Career Development Center is top-ranked in the nation for career placement, and we do a number of workshops with our students."
Back in April, WPI partnered with Rockstar Games for an Unpacking the Portfolio workshop. Experts helped the students determine what kind of criteria to include in their portfolios based on which part of the games industry they wanted to go in. The university also hosts guest speakers and sends students to PAX East every year to network and run the booth.
"We showcase student games at our PAX East booth," Smith said. "We send students to be able to represent WPI, and represent themselves. They work in the booth for a few hours, and then they're free to roam the show floor and network with everyone."
Speaking with Gillian, she outlined how the Interactive Media and Game Development Program is geared toward helping students discover what direction they want to go in.
"Some students have a very narrow idea of what the industry looks like, thinking they'll work on games they play at home. We show them all the different kinds of jobs and the different skills they'll need," she said. "Some students get their degree in game development and end up working in the tech industry, keeping gaming as a hobby or side job."
WPI isn't the only university with a game development program, but it is a leading higher-ed institution with STEM programs that attract applicants from all over the country and abroad. With the 2022 class having just graduated and more students entering the job market every day, it won't be long before we see the next generation of game developers take over the future of the games we play. And if my time speaking with the students and staff at WPI is any indication, it's sure to be a very bright future