Frequently Asked Questions for the Game Design and Development Minor

Below are some FAQs about the specialization, answered by:
Brian Winn
Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies
Co-Founder of the Game Design & Development Minor

Why study games?

Why are digital games worthy of academic pursuits?
Like many animals, one way we (Humans) learn is through the process of play. What makes games unique is that they impose formal rules, goals and objectives, thereby structuring the play for particular purposes. This has brought us simple childhood games like duck-duck-goose and tic-tac-toe to more complex games like chess and football.

When video games began to emerge back in the 1970s it really was an immature, garage industry. That is, a small team of programmers and artists (sometimes as small as one or two individuals) working out of their homes developed most games. At this time, there was no formal training in game design. These early pioneers were really inventing this new form of play.

As the medium developed and the industry grew, five things happened:

What about violence, addiction, and all the negative press surrounding games?
Digital games are a new form of media. Like many new forms of media before it (film, radio, TV, Web), it has been under the intense scrutiny of many parent groups, politicians, and news organizations. Many people’s perceptions are formed solely on what they hear about a few game titles such as Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Combat, and Doom. The fact is there are hundreds of thousands of digital games titles out there, some are designed for kids, some for teenagers, and some for adults, just like movies.

However, digital games are also unique among media in that one players experience of a game can be profoundly different than another’s. This personalized experience is crafted due to the highly interactive nature of games. This high level of interaction is very engaging to many players, hence the tendency for some players to stay up into the wee hours of the morning trying to “level up”.

Certainly much research is needed in the area to flush out the true impact of games on individuals and society. We have several faculty doing research in these areas and we do other courses, such as MI401 Media Impacts on Society and several graduate level courses that explore these very issues and examine the latest research in the area (some of which is being conducted at MSU.) The entire minor will stress the choices designers have, the possible impacts of those choices, and the ethics of being a designer in our free society. Perhaps this is the very thing the (fairly young) game industry needs.

What do you think the field of gaming might look like 20 years from now?
Digital-based games have only existed for roughly 50 years. In that time we have gone from extremely simplistic two-dimensional graphics, basic sound and basic game play to lush three-dimensional graphics, surround sound and deep, sometimes complex game scenarios. Certainly we will continue to see an increase in the depth and quality of gaming experience. I don’t think we will be playing on a Star Trek-like holodeck in 20 years, but certainly the average game will be much more immersive than the screen-based gaming experience of today. Advances in processing power and artificial intelligence will make computer-generated characters extremely life-like, game physics very realistic, and true interactive storytelling obtainable. During this time, there will continue to be a convergence of media and communication technologies.

Why our program?

What strengths does Michigan State University have in the area of game design and research?
Michigan State University is uniquely positioned to offer a minor in this area. MSU has several faculty doing innovative game design and development work, as well as many faculty working on cutting edge research in such areas as the impact and influence of games on individuals and society, games for learning, gender issues in games, play patterns, artificial intelligence in games, advertising in games, and more. Further, MSU has strong research and production facilities, growing connections with the game industry, and a diverse student population interested in the minor.

Most human resource heads I speak with in the game industry state that they are looking for individuals, not only with the skills necessary to do their job today, but the knowledge and creativity to learn, adapt, and transform into their job tomorrow. Technologies, tools, and techniques rapidly change in the game industry. Students need to be strong, creative problem solvers with excellent communication and teamwork skills. Michigan State University provides this education, not only through the specific courses students will take as part of their major and in this minor, but also through the excellent liberal arts education they will earn along the way.

In 2011, we were named the #5 undergraduate program in the country by Princeton Review.

What degrees will the students who graduate from the minor have?
Students in the program will graduate with either a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Engineering, a Bachelor of Arts or Fine Arts in Studio Art, or a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science in Media and Information, depending on their major. The degree usually takes four years to complete with the minor undertaken during the junior and senior years.

Game Industry and Jobs

What careers will students be prepared for after completing the minor?
Students completing the minor will gain the knowledge, skills, and experience for jobs in three industries.

  1. Most students are interested in the interactive entertainment (game) industry. Depending on the major and emphasis of the student they will be prepared for traditional game development team roles, such as programmer, designer, artist, or producer.
  2. With the increasing application of digital games for more than purely entertainment purposes, students will also be prepared for jobs in what has been dubbed the “serious games” industry, developing games for such tasks as education, business or military training, and advertising (creating “advergames”).
  3. While developing games is the focus of the minor, the knowledge and skills the students obtain transfer directly to the larger interactive media and information technology industries, opening up a wide range of career paths.

Are there jobs available in the game industry?
A study released in August 2010 by the Entertainment Software Association states the U.S. computer and video game software publishing industry directly employs more than 32,000 people in 34 states and the total U.S. employment, both direct and indirect that depends on game software now exceeds 120,000.

Doug Lowenstein, head of the Entertainment Software Association, stated in his 2006 keynote address, that “…many of the jobs created by the video game industry are high skilled and highly compensated.  Typical entry level video game industry jobs pay $50,000 or more, well above the average paid to typical college graduates.” In 2009, the average annual compensation per employee (wages, salaries and employer contributions for pensions, insurance and government social insurance) was $89,781.  The 2009 average compensation per employee at Interactive Entertainment Software Locations in Michigan was $83,335.

While the game industry is competitive, there definitely are jobs to be had for qualified candidates. And, as mentioned in answering the question about careers, students can always choose to pursue jobs in several related industries, as well.

For more information on statistics, see Video Games in the 21st Century: The 2010 Report (PDF)

Still want to know more? The student created documentary, Beyond Pong, does a great job of giving an overview of the game industry, although it is beginning to get a little dated. Watch Beyond Pong: The evolution of video games (QuickTime required)

Where is the game industry?
Unlike the film industry, the entertainment game industry is much more spread out. There are game companies located all around the world. maintains a list of locations around the world that have game development studios. There are many smaller studios that are not on the map. One of the best ways to find companies is to check with the local IGDA Chapters in the location of the world you are exploring.

California is the largest employer of computer and video game personnel in the nation, accounting for approximately 41 percent of total industry employment nationwide. California, Texas, Washington, New York and Massachusetts are currently the top 5 states with the highest number of video game jobs. Collectively, these areas directly employ 22,279 workers and post nearly 71 percent of the industry’s total direct employment. It was reported that Michigan has 6 Interactive Entertainment Software Locations that directly employ 198 people, including people they indirectly employ it’s 720. For more information on statistics, see Video Games in the 21st Century: The 2010 Report (PDF)

Beyond the entertainment game industry, there are many interactive media, multimedia, educational training, and serious game and simulation companies that employ individuals with game design and development skills.

Preparing to Apply / Getting In

How important is a love for video games to succeed in this minor?
Most kids today grow up playing video games. It is an integral part of their culture. In many cases, the initial attraction to developing games will happen before they reach us and this will likely grow out of a love of playing games. Certainly I would not recommend anyone go into making video games if they do not enjoy playing them any more than I would recommend someone becoming a pilot who hates air travel. However, even if a student loves video games when they enter our program they often do not yet have an appreciation of the intricacies of how a game is designed and built. These things are what we teach and in most cases this knowledge will deepen their love of games. However, in some cases it may reveal the wizard behind the curtain (as Dorothy found in Oz) leaving them unimpressed. I tell my students on the first day of my game design class that just because you enjoy playing games, does not mean you will enjoy making them. Game creation is a rigorous, sometimes trying process, which also happens to be very rewarding to most.

What kinds of classes and extracurricular activities should high school students participate in to prepare themselves for higher education study related to games?

The types of classes to best prepare you will vary somewhat depending on which role you assume in the program. For game programmers, certainly you want strong math and technical skills. For game artists, you want strong visual design skills. And for game designers, you want strong writing and communication skills. However, I personally feel high school is too early to focus and there are definite advantages of having a multidisciplinary understanding. Therefore, I recommend high school students to try to get a good foundation in all the areas mentioned above.

In terms of extracurricular activities, I would recommend not only playing games but also dabbling as much as possible in creating your own games. Many computer games today come with tools that allow you to create your own levels or modify the game in some fashion (called “modding”.) Neverwinter Nights, Unreal Tournament, and the Sims 2 are examples of games that come with such tools. This is a great place to start. Once you have mod’ed a few games, try to design and build a small, simple game of your own using a tool like Flash or Director. The more design experience you have, the better.

We offer 1-week long summer camps for middle school and high school students in game design.  If you’re not sure if you want to make games, or just play them, our summer camp is a great place to start. If you know game design is for you, camp is a great introduction. You get an introduction to game design and what our program is like through our camps. By the end of the week you will create a small game of your own using the same software we use in our college courses. Find out more about our summer programs.

Also, game creation is an inherently team-based activity. Any classroom or extracurricular activity that helps you with your teamwork and communication skills is beneficial.

And finally, inspiration for game ideas comes from the world around us. Become fascinated in that world and try to understand it as much as possible. It does not matter if you are taking a class in physics, chemistry, mathematics, social studies, psychology, history, or composition. You can gain valuable insights into our world and these insights will make you better at creating games.

What kinds of classes and extracurricular activities should MSU students seek out in their Freshman and Sophomore years to prepare themselves for the minor?
Beyond the courses in your major, I would encourage taking courses that strengthen your understanding of how Humans think and act, such as courses in psychology, cognitive science, philosophy (logic and. I also encourage taking creative and technical writing courses. And as I mentioned above, become fascinated in the world and try to understand it as much as possible. Bring this passion into all your classes.

With that said, many courses allow you some creative freedom on assignments and projects. You can often use these assignments and projects to strengthen your skills and knowledge in games, even though the class has nothing to do with games. For example, if you are taking a creative writing class, use an assignment to write a backstory for your dream game. If you are taking a physics class, create a small program that simulates some aspect of physics in a game-like environment. These projects, if done well, will look great in a portfolio.

Get involved in groups and organizations related to your industry of interest. The connections you make will be invaluable. Further, the more you communicate with others, the better your communication skills will become. In terms of games, SpartaSoft is the MSU student game developers group. I highly encourage you to get involved and attend their meetings. The International Game Developers Association is the professional organization for game developers. You should become a member and attend the Detroit Chapter’s IGDA meetings, as well.

What are the prerequisites to getting into the minor?
Preference will be given to students majoring in Media & Information, Computer Science, or Art who have completed or are currently enrolled in the minor prerequisites applicable to their major (listed below). Students with relevant experience and strong backgrounds from other departments may also apply, particularly students in the Honors College. Students without the listed prerequisites will also be considered.

Prerequisites for Computer Science Students:

Prerequisites for Studio Art Students:

Prerequisites for Media & Information Students:

Prerequisites for other majors:
We will consider your application on a case-by-case basis.
Enrollment in the Game Design and Development minor is limited. Preferred selection criteria in addition to class standing and the major-specific prerequisites include:

If you are a transfer student to MSU, equivalent classes may substitute for the prerequisites and will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

How does one apply to the minor?
Students can apply online. Applications are accepted at any point. Applications will be reviewed periodically between now and the end of March for Fall entry into MI445. Apply early, apply now!

I am not yet a MSU student. How do I get into the minor?
To enter into any program at MSU, you must be admitted to the University. At the undergraduate level, the Office of Admissions handles all applications and admits students, not the department you want to enter. There is no guarantee that you will be admitted to the minor, even if you are admitted to Michigan State University. That is, you still will need to apply to the minor. Your application will be evaluated based on the criteria listed above.

Curriculum / Courses

What courses make up the minor?
Once accepted, students take the following four courses, typically during their Junior and Senior years, to earn the minor:

For more information on the requirements and eligibility, please visit the College’s Game minor page.

Do you offer courses I can take beyond those in the minor?
Yes! I highly recommend the following MI courses, categorized by area:

What software do you use in the minor?
We are constantly checking out the latest game development tools and will adopt tools that help best prepare our students for industry, while making since to use within an academic environment. When we evaluate tools, we particular look at:

Currently we are using the following tools (subject to change based on course needs):

Of course students are free to use other tools on their game projects as they see fit.

How do I get the minor on my transcript?
How do I get the minor on my transcript?Once you complete all the courses in the minor, your should contact Corey Moore to sign off on the minor prior to graduation.

Are there scholarships available?
Internal Scholarships
The Department of Media and Information accepts applications for scholarships every spring. Find out more about department scholarships.

External Scholarships
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) Foundation established a scholarship that provides resources to women and minority students pursuing careers in video game development. Find out more about the ESA Foundation Computer & Video Game Scholarship Program.

Graduate Program

Are there graduate programs in this area?
We launched a graduate track in serious game design for master’s students in Fall 2007. If you are coming from our undergraduate minor here at MSU or coming from another program outside of MSU, this is the perfect MA program to continue your studies of game design and development, with a focus on serious games.

Outside of MSU, I encourage you to take a look at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon, the School of Cinema at University of Southern California, and the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Industry Partnership

Are there opportunities for members of the game industry to partner with MSU on the game minor?
We are currently seeking industry partnerships to strengthen the minor through:

  • Collaborative projects – our MI 498 Collaborative Game Design course is a capstone experience for students in the minor where they will work over a semester on a game project in a team setting with an external, preferably industry-based client. The typical project will be to prototype a new game idea or add a feature to a current game title. Industry partners may benefit by having a team available to explore experimental game ideas or develop non-critical gameplay features for an in-production game title.
  • Internships opportunities – internships are strongly encouraged for students in the minor; we will have students trained in programming, art, design, and production.
  • Guest lecturers and instructors – beyond the required courses in the minor, we will be offering a number of special topics courses taught by both academics and industry experts. The format and duration of the special topics courses are flexible. Many are weekend workshops.
  • If you are in industry and interested in forming a partnership with us, please contact Brian Winn at

    More Information

    How can I find out more information?
    For more information about the minor, contact:

    Corey Moore, Academic Advisor
    Michigan State University, College of Comm. Arts and Sciences
    189 Com. Arts Bldg.
    East Lansing, MI 48824

    Phone: 517-355-1794
    Fax: 517-355-3346
    Web: Schedule an Appointment

    GameDev at MSU

    404 Wilson Road, Room 409

    East Lansing, MI 48824