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AnimationU: Inspiring the New-Wave of For-Profit Game Designers

University Business, September 2012

Sitting back in our local air-conditioned movie theater, on a sweltering hot summer day watching Andrew Garfield scale a sky-scraper in 3D, we are reminded of a recent graduate fast-forwarding from the world of for-profit animation education to the emergent career field of game design.

For those old enough to remember Spiderman’s pre-cable TV debut, this summer’s Amazing Spiderman 4 reminds us how technology has evolved. As allied industries, gaming and animation grew up together. Spiderman cut his teeth on Atari, and carried a Game-Boy to Middle School. Today, PlayStation, Xbox, and Wii still rule in college dorm rooms.  Contrary to popular misconceptions created by recent television exposés on for-profit art education, these for-profit academic institutions are connecting graduates with gainful employment and making tuition ends meet.

Beyond screen technology, the modern evolution of videogames has profoundly changed the way students engage in learning.  This year’s crop of for-profit art school graduates are learning cutting-edge media arts technologies. Leading game design and media arts schools have revolutionized the way the entertainment industry creates cinematic productions.  Through their participation on program advisory boards, leading game service providers have forever changed career preparation expectations of art and design schools.

Founded in 2007, Zynga has become a world-class, interactive, social media enterprise which cultivates interdisciplinary teams of smart-collar workers where artistic talent, business acumen, and programming prowess come together to stimulate creative game design. With a global workforce of 2,500, Zynga’s games entertain 240 million monthly users. Social media gaming providers like Zynga are uniquely positioned to optimize and inspire the next generation of animation artists who will set the standard for future art and design graduates.

We begin this month’s virtual art and design school tour in Brookline, Massachusetts where faculty at the New England Institute of Art (NEiA) deploy their real-world experience to create a learning environment that simulates the fast changing gaming and animation industry environment graduates will enter in 2013. Impressively, NEiA alumni earn competitive jobs at today’s hottest game companies such as Seven45 Studios, Turbine, Inc, Irrational Games, Rampid Gaming, What if Productions, Creat Studios, Tilted Mill, Public VR, Blue Fang Games, Jawbreaker Interactive, Weta Digital, Sputnik Animation, LaunchPad Media, Powerhouse Animation Studios, Neoscape, ImaginEngine, Soup 2 Nuts, 360 Kid, Fable Vision, and Clambake. Professor Jason Donati, Chair of Web Design and Interactive Media Department at NEiA, said it simply, “The best programs strike a balance between art and technology. Amazing artists need to know how to hit the ground running with technology.”

Moving westward, we arrive at the Media Institute in Madison, Wisconsin, where Eric Weiss, Department Chair of Game Art and Animation, and Mobile Application Development put it this way: “Understanding how your work product fits into the larger machine of the game studio is critical. Most game studios are like complex manufacturing plants, similar to an automobile factory. There are dozens of assemblies, further broken down into sub-assemblies and constructed using a small army of technically astute line workers.  However, in addition to the rigorous technical excellence that is required in an automotive assembly line, in the game industry, the creative quality of the art itself is critical. Often, it is the artist’s ability to use reference and research to match other works, real or imagined that differentiates the best artists from those who are merely adequate.”

Named the top gaming school by Electronic Gaming Monthly, Full Sail offers an online Master’s Degree in Game Design which provides interdisciplinary learning perspectives in production methodologies, project management, and team leadership. At Full Sail, all learning takes place in a professional studio, and students are trained to become the next generation of industry executives. Significantly, Full Sail alumni have worked on major games like Modern Warfare 3 and Red Dead Redemption.

At the close of our virtual tour, we learned to ask new questions about core gaming and animation skills, knowledge, and competencies. Future game designers will be expected to work harmoniously with other members of multimedia teams and apply integrative problem-solving patterns to land that first job. Beyond technical skills, students must develop critical thinking, decision making, and team-building leadership. For-profit art and multimedia design schools offer interesting growth-oriented models for how to prepare students to think beyond traditional design concepts and imagine a multi-dimensional world. For students who want to emerge from college ready to earn, contemporary animation and gaming schools like New England Institute of Art, Madison Media Institute and Full Sail offer a winning combination of academic credentials and job market readiness.