Video Games have become part of the fabric of modern society, both socially and economically. In 2013 video game sales topped $6 billion in the United States, and when including game sales on mobile devices, such as smart phones, the dollar figure increases to over $9 billion. It’s a large industry to say the least, and it’s here to stay. (See our interview with Jeremy Snead, director of the documentary film Video Games: The Movie). This is a ranking of the 27 Best Video Game Colleges 2015 at traditional, campus-based colleges.
Video game designers and developers are in very high demand, and higher education is striving to meet this demand as universities increasingly offer video game programs at undergraduate and graduate levels. (For online Video Game Design programs, see our 10 Best Video Game Colleges Online).
As usual at SuccessfulStudent.org, this ranking is from the student’s point of view. Factors that went into consideration of the ranking were well rounded academics, cost, career prospects in the gaming industry, cutting edge technological instruction, a track record of graduates making an impact in commercial video games, and proximity to video game and entertainment epicenters. The ranking mostly includes Bachelor’s degrees, but there are some Master’s degrees mentioned as well. In cases where the college offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees, both programs were considered.
The University of Southern California, (USC), has a long and illustrious connection to the entertainment industry. Its strategic proximity to Hollywood is why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always nominated at least one alumni every year since its creation in 1929. This, in conjunction with the fact that USC is the oldest west coast university, boasts an impressive $3.9 billion endowment, over 41,000 students, and is located in one of the world’s cultural epicenters, gives USC significant resources. But it takes more than just a great university with much history and prestigious sister programs to build a successful, specialized program. A school also needs substantial offerings in the targeted area. USC offers 2 Bachelor and 2 Master’s level programs dedicated to Interactive Media and Game Design. Students focusing on design and production can pursue the Interactive Media & Games degrees through the school of Cinematic Arts, while those more concerned with the technical aspects of game development should choose the Computer Science (Games) degrees through the Viterbi School of Engineering. USC also offers several official video game design minors. Students have the unique opportunity to network with peers at any other level within these programs. This makes the hands on experience and project development more than just class work, it is also a chance for team building and developing leadership skills.
There is a reason why major game design companies like EA Sports call Salt Lake City home. The University of Utah’s Video Game Design program combines art orientated students and more technically minded ones in a program that simulates how actual video game design functions. Their students have access to a variety of valuable internship opportunities, and leave with experience similar to typical startup companies. This is part of the reason why the Princeton Review ranked their undergraduate program 1st and their graduate program 2nd in game design. Undergraduate students average $72,000 annual incomes while their graduate kin start at an even more impressive $97,000. The school runs a highly respected summer program for high school students, and takes the time to interview every promising applicant. This is why the student body comes from such a wide range of nations, with students from India, Russia, China, Mexico, and Indonesia.
Carnegie Mellon University has long been known as one of America’s leading science schools. It has in recent years developed the Entertainment Technology Center. This program provides a two year master’s degree in Entertainment Technology offered jointly with the College of Fine Arts and the School of Computer Science, (both of which are top 10 programs in their own respective areas). Students here have the opportunity to study under industry leaders such as Jess Schell, the first individual to receive the “Game Changer Award”. He is also famous for researching and building games that advance society through everything from helping people discover how proteins fold to teaching kids about HIV. The Entertainment Technology Center also runs a successful summer program for high school students, requires an industry internship, and uses a variety of team based projects to simulate the real world job market.
DigiPen is more than just another game design program. This school represents just how far the still developing game design industry has come. With substantial support from Nintendo, DigiPen began accepting students in 1994. It is a for-profit degree granting school that exclusively specializes in preparing students to enter the industry as skilled software developers, artists, designers, and computer engineers. The school has branch campuses in Spain, Singapore, and a partnership with Keimyung University in South Korea, in addition to its main campus based just outside of America’s game design hub in Seattle. DigiPen offers both graduate and undergraduate degrees and runs a substantial k-12 summer program. Students can specialize in subsets of the field, such as real-time interactive simulation, engineering and sound design, digital art and animation, music and sound design, as well as general degrees in general computer science and digital arts. DigiPen has been at the forefront of game design since the dawn age of this commercial field, has spread to several continents, possesses historic ties to arguably the most well-known name in the gaming industry, and has every reason to believe it will continue to grow as the video game industry grows.
The Savannah College of Art and Design exists somewhere in between the razor sharp focus of DigiPen, which pours all of its attention into digital creativity, and the broad, multidisciplinary approach of major research universities. On the one hand the school has numbers reminiscent of a research university, with over 11,000 students, 23% of which are international, and multiple campuses, (one of which is in Hong Kong). On the other one hand virtually all of its academic programs are built for budding artists. The school’s interactive design and game development program has been recognized for its achievements by both The Princeton Review and Animation Career Review. It has also won first place two years in a row at the E3 College Game Competition. The program offers both bachelor of arts, bachelor of fine arts, and their master’s level equivalents. In addition to providing their students with first rate courses, Savannah’s Collaborative Learning Center connects students with industry leaders each year.
Drexel University has over 26,000 students, has been ranked among America’s top 100 universities for five straight years, and has a long history of leading education’s integration of technology. It was the first university to require students to have micro-computers (1983), the first major university to have a fully wireless campus (2000), provided the first mobile web portal for students (2002), and developed the first university portal app across all five major platforms (2011). This love of cutting edge technology translates well into a competitive video game design program that works in tandem with its computer science and its digital media departments. Drexel students have won numerous awards such as 1st Place in the Microsoft Imagine Cup, the Unity Awards, the GDC’s Narrative Review Competition, and first place in the Adobe Achievement Awards. The school has particular strengths in using games to facilitate learning and even offers a Learning in Game Based Environments Certificate.
Rochester Institute of Technology is one of the nation’s most well established technical schools and resides in one of America’s premier college towns. It was here that the nation’s first laboratory for social computing was established in 2005, and in 2008 the school opened a campus in Dubai. In addition to its various other departments, Rochester runs its Interactive Games and Multimedia (IGM) department, which is one of the largest of its kind. This allows the IGM to offer over 150 classes in a given year. IGM is self-consciously seeking world renowned notoriety across its field. Consequently, it offers multiple degrees specifically in Game Design and Development. It helps run programs such as the Global Game Jam, which both invites students to develop their skill set and helps them network with others in the industry, and the image cup Hack a Thon. The Princeton Review has ranked Rochester’s IGM as a top 10 video game design program for four straight years.
Students studying video game design at Hampshire College have arguably the coolest library in the world. Yes, that’s right. Hampshire College runs a Game Lab and Game Library with access to more games than someone can realistically play, contemporary commercial video game systems, experimental systems, (such as Oculus Rift equipped with dev kit 2), historic systems, (like Atari), and all the surround sound and lighting any gamer could ever want. The school also runs a massive, private computer at the Hampshire College Cluster Computing Facility. Hampshire College also benefits from its location. Amherst is considered by many to be the best college town in America. Hampshire is surrounded by other world class universities, think tanks, and institutions, which exponentially expand the opportunities for its students. Aside from these unique resources which give students an advantage over the competition Hampshire also runs game development workshops and programs for women in game design.
As its name suggests, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is a respected school with a strong representation in the sciences. The school’s insatiable appetite for applied learning has produced 33 research centers and counting. Their Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences (GSAS) program specializes in video game related activities, and is divided into two branches. The first branch leads to a Bachelor of Science in games and simulation arts. This program takes a holistic approach in order to give students the wide skill set they need in such an interdisciplinary field. The second branch consists of several different concentrations that students choose from relevant to emerging subfields in the games and simulation/entertainment industry. Students have access to the Sage Labs, which consists of three subsets. These subsets include the games lab, (where students take many of their courses), the games projects space, (where students can develop their own games), and the VAST Studio, (where students develop advanced animations).
The Worcester Polytechnic Institute is nationally ranked for its Interactive Media and Game Development, (IMGD), program. This program encourages its graduate to build unique portfolios that will be competitive in the career world through project-based learning. Students are also required to interact at all levels of the game design process, including content creation, programming, testing, and project management. The IMGD program offers digital whiteboard presentations, distributed virtual environments, and performance-based media. Graduates of Polytechnic Institute have landed successful careers with companies such as Infinity Ward, Irrational Games, and Owlchemy Labs. WPI also offers a week long summer program for 6 – 8th grade students teaching the foundations of video game level design, programming concepts, and interactive media. All undergraduates at WPI, including the IMGD program students, must participate in a group based Interactive Qualifying Project. Here students, “address a problem that lies at the intersection of science or technology with social issues and human needs”. One example of an IMGD IQP is the “virtual joust” now used at the Higgins Armory Museum that allows visitors to experience a joust in a Flash-based game through a Nintendo Wii.
People outside the video game industry often perceive the business as purely focused on entertainment. Although that remains the driving economic force behind video game creation, Parsons The New School for Design shows students how to use their skill sets in creative ways for humanitarian ends. For instance, Parsons teamed up with the Red Cross through Pet Lab in order to build games that teach people in vulnerable areas about the importance of climate preparation. They also work side by side with Games for Change, a non-prophet dedicated towards education. Parsons is also especially sensitive to the recent move in games across multiple platforms such as the ipad, iphone, and Android. In addition to these altruistic projects, Parsons also instructs students in all the traditional areas expected by someone working in the field. Student training culminates in a 12 credit project requiring students to solve a problem with game design.
Full Sail University’s program in game design focuses on four major aspects of the field, namely production methodologies, project management, team leadership, and a game capstone project. The production methodologies portion of the curriculum teaches students the nuts and bolts of game design, from computer code to color theory. Project management covers various areas of software production, including asset management and quality assurance. Furthermore, too few recognize how important social interaction is to video game production, and this is becoming all the more vital as games become increasingly complex projects involving multiple teams of people. Full Sail’s team leadership material thus fills a vital role in the budding game designer’s training. And finally, all these tools come together in arguably the most important part of the degree; the senior capstone. Here students unite in team based projects to build their own games from the ground up. Full Sail guides students through a series of 12 consecutive courses, each one 4 weeks long and worth 3.5 credits. This unorthodox calendar immerses students in one aspect of game design at a time as they rapidly build on previous skill sets in a logical sequence. Thus, Full Sail’s degree is far more efficient and structured than its competition.
Columbia College of Chicago has one of the lowest tuitions of any private arts and media schools in the U.S. With over 10,000 students it is also one of the largest. And all this is provided in one of America’s most significant centers of commerce and research. The Interactive Arts and Media (IAM) department has three concentrations. Those wishing to apply their understanding of music to game design can choose the Game Sound Design concentration. Likewise, those interested in the visual can study game art, and finally those looking for a more general background can study general game design. In addition to these tracks, students can choose a separate game programing major. Regardless of the concentration or major, all students become familiar with the foundations of game design, which is why IAM graduates are now working at companies like Dreamation, Jellyvision, RedEye Studios, WMS Industries, and Liquid Generation.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (MIT), opened new doors to exploring the video game world when it created the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab. This think tank was designed to develop video games as more than toys. Instead, it envisioned a world where video games served as a compliment to books as teaching tools. Today the newly rebuilt MIT Game Lab continues the pioneering work of its forefather. This game lab serves as the interdisciplinary hub for students interested in game design throughout the university. Whereas other schools are increasingly choosing video game specific tracts, MIT draws on its broad resources as arguably the most respected international science research center. Instead of creating a new department to compete with its world class representations in computer science, mathematics, logic, and visual media, MIT has created an organizing think tank that weaves these many departments and all their interdisciplinary background together, all while unifying their endeavors under a humanitarian goal.
New York University (NYU) has become a world renowned institution. It has become arguably the leading school in arguably the world’s most influential city. Its Tisch School of the Arts has fully capitalized on its proximity to Broadway and is now one of the most respected creative centers in the world. Furthermore, it recently opened a video game design degree for this year in 2015. Some may wonder why such a young program is ranked so highly. After all, some of the other programs on this list have more than a decade head start. But NYU’s approach to the fine arts has always been interdisciplinary and included cutting edge technology. Also, its computer science credentials remain unquestioned as the program operates under the world-famous Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and has considerably expanded its faculty in recent years. In many ways this growing interest and collaboration of resources proves the real question is not why has NYU’s young program ranked so high, but how fast will it continue to climb.
Shawnee State University has the small feel of an elite private school, (its total student population is a mere 4,400), and all the research benefits of being an up and coming public university in one of America’s most rapidly developing states. Perhaps this is why 83 percent of graduates from Shawnee find employment in their chosen field within six months of graduation. This pragmatic approach translates well into a research driven field like game design that also requires substantial interpersonal team based projects. The approach of their BS in Digital Simulation and Game Design is decidedly technical and heavily emphasizes computer science and programing as its core. Nevertheless, they still incorporate artistic elements into their math, physics, and programing curriculum. Shawnee also offers the closely affiliated Game and Simulation Development Arts degree for those more interested in aesthetic, instead of technical, applications.
Cornell founded its game design undergraduate program in 2001, making it one of the oldest and the first to be founded by an Ivy League school. Also, their interdisciplinary Game Design Initiative at Cornell, (GDIAC), consists of Cornell’s leading science faculty in various computer science and information sciences as well as art and music. Students from multiple academic disciplines ranging from obvious areas of overlap, like computer science, to more distant ones, like English, take part. Cornell has put graduates in companies like Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Zynga and studios such as Bungie, Valve, and Irrational Games. It has also been at the forefront of social and mobile gaming, and an increasing number of alumni are branching out into their own startup companies. The school also offers an outreach programs for high school students in the local Ithaca area. Although no formal graduate program currently exists, numerous professors and graduate students all benefit from and work within GDIAC.
At Michigan State University (MSU) the department of Computer Science, Fine Arts, and Media and Information combined their resources to create the Game Design and Development Specialization. Oftentimes specializations are just toned down minors or slight variations in a pre-existing major, but not so with MSU’s Game Design Specialization. This is a two year program that requires 9 to 11 credits just to be considered for inclusion. Its alumni now work for companies like Red Storm Entertainment, Microsoft Xbox Team, Rockstar San Diego, Microsoft Casual Games, and Sony Computer Entertainment. Many schools in the top 27 routinely provide some kind of program for promising high school students interested in game design. MSU, however, goes one step further by providing one week programs for high school students with no previous experience in game design. Unlike other schools which largely use their summer programs as ways to advertise and attract the best talent, MSU has the resources to actively generate new talent by drawing a wider range of potential students. This contribution to the field at large allows the university to build an ever expanding network of interested talent.
The University of Pennsylvania, (U Penn), is one of the oldest and most respected universities in America. Originally founded by Benjamin Franklyn, this school dominates Philadelphia and holds its own amongst the other Ivy League Schools to this day. In 2004 it launched its Masters in Engineering in Computer Graphics and Game Technology, (CGGT). Unlike most of its competition, U Penn is better known for its graduate than undergraduate programs, however undergrads interested in game design can still benefit from its Digital Media BS. Applicants to the CGGT program are expected to have a degree in computer science or engineering, and often have substantial experience working in industry. The Center for Human Modeling and Simulation (HMS), being founded in 1975, is one of the oldest of its kind in the world, and has made the university a leader in computer graphics and human/behavioral simulation. The center has produced the famous “Jack” software and industry leaders such as Nick Foster of PDI/DreamWorks who produced Shrek, and Cary Philips of Industrial Light and Magic. U Penn also runs the SIG Center for Computer Graphics which has produced alumni working for Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Sony, Activision, and Blue Sky Entertainment.
Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media, and Design offers training in game design running from undergraduate minors, through bachelor degrees, and up through graduate certificates and degrees. Their program has both a digital arts and a computer science branch. They also run the Playable Innovative Technologies Lab, (a.k.a. the PLAIT Lab). The research at this lab includes work on various topics such as visual analytics, adaptive lighting, and resource management models. Northeastern applies this hands on approach to its education system as well. Students are exposed to a co-op program that gets them working alongside industry giants. The university partners with Microsoft Game Studios, Zynga, Tencent Boston, Tapwalk, and SAIC Corporation. Northeastern professor Susan Gold became famous throughout the game design community when she launched the first Global Game Jam. These events bring students from across the world together to develop games based on a common theme. This has evolved into a massive event involving 73 countries and thousands of participants. Northeastern’s creativity thus continues to challenge the game design industry.
As its name suggests, Oklahoma Christian University is a small, private Christian school with just under 2,200 students. Typically people choose to attend this kind of school for a variety of reasons which go beyond sheer academic efficiency, and sometimes the price for a spiritually enriching, extended family atmosphere is lesser access to expensive equipment and resources. But this Christian school’s academics have not suffered. Instead, Oklahoma Christian University has been recognized by both the Princeton Review and PC Gamer for its considerable reputation within the video game design field, and students have access to an advanced MAC Lab with a plethora of programs necessary for success in the industry. Oklahoma offers both BFAs in Graphic Design and MFAs in New Media. Students compliment the study of essentials like 3d modeling, texturing, rigging, animation, and game production with the history of film and other artistic mediums.
Most elite video game design programs offer bachelor and master’s degrees, although some only focus on undergraduates, and a few do not provide an official degree in game design. That is why the Georgia Institute of Technology’s PhDs and fellowships are so unique and exciting for the game design industry. By offering such high level research opportunities Georgia Institute of Technology is positioning itself for academic prestige and successful entrapenship. The school does much of its game related research through the Experimental Game Lab and the Synesthetic Game Lab. It also runs several research centers relevant to game design such as the GVU Center. The school also provides Games and Georgia Tech Corporate Travel Grants. These grants enable students to attend conferences and business opportunities the world over. Georgia has created an educational model that allows those interested in game design access to all the traditional perks available to traditional research programs, and is a testament to how rapidly this field has grown.
The Cleveland Institute of Art, (CIA), is a small, specialized school of 525 students. It recognizes the need for creative expression to embrace the endless possibilities offered by the information age. Consequently, the school has created a game design degree and set about building the infrastructure necessary to foster creativity in this rapidly developing field. This is why the school converted a vast, former FORD auto assembly factory into its game design headquarters. Now students at CIA have access to an entire game editing suite, a sound editing and recording studio, a green-screen chroma Key studio, not one but two lighting and shooting areas, and a fully stocked game room. But CIA has more than just fancy equipment to play with. It also has some of the top minds in the business, which is why it has been recognized by Animation Career Review.
Over the last century education has taken a very academic, book based approach. Under this system students are first exposed to the theoretical underpinnings of their field before they actively take part in advancing it. Most colleges now require students to complete their core, liberal arts classes before they begin studying their major. But at Champlain College the self-consciously “upside down” curriculum gets students studying what they are most passionate about from the first day of class, and this is all the more important for an applied field like video game design. Here students learn about varied aspects of game design, including systems design, level design, narrative design, game engine design, and studio collaboration. In addition to their successful undergraduate program, Champlain also offers a prestigious master’s degree that focuses on filling a student’s portfolio with substantial projects, and offers many study abroad programs in places like Dublin or Montreal. The school also offers its annual senior show which allows students to showcase their work before an audience well attended by industry leaders.
Students at Becker College interested in game design can earn a degree in Interactive Media Design. This degree has two distinct concentrations; Game Development and Programming and Game Design. In April 2011, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts designated Becker as the home of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI). This statewide institute is a productive think tank at the cross section between industry, academy, and government that fully taps into Masseschuest’s favorable location as the 4th largest video game cluster in the U.S. Internship opportunities abound, which is part of the reason why alumni are found in everyone from industry to the Danforth Museum. These resources also give students access to a high performance computer lab, a six camera video motion capture system, 3D design software, and a growing number of additional, advanced technologies. Students leave Becker fully equipped to hunt for careers in the exponentially growing game design field.
Founded in 1931, Ringling College of Art and Design is the oldest private, not-for-profit arts school in the southeastern United States, and the only one of its kind in Florida. Students here enjoy the benefits of a well-developed institution that has had time to mature and also sits in the Sun Coast, one of the most enjoyable tropical climates in the country. Ringling has a particularly adept gamming art program. The school has been recognized for its successful animation multiple times. In 2013 Ringling students won gold and bronze in the student academy awards, and Ringling alumni were a part of the Oscar winning Frozen animation team. This eclectic arts school turned digital approach also offers its students ample training in all the traditional, technical areas that game designers need such as audio and programing. The school also offers multiple summer art programs and courses for a variety of students.
Founded in 1929, The Academy of Art University in San Francisco, CA, offers a diverse education in the arts through the Game Development Bachelor’s of Fine Arts Degree. Students will learn 3D modeling, animation and lighting in video game production. More specific degrees include Animation and Visual Effects; for today’s digital technology, students must choose between visual effects, 3D modeling, 3D animation, traditional animation, and storyboarding. Game Development includes game engine technology and pre-production and production environments. Music Production and Sound Design for Visual Media focuses on creating sound for video games, music notation, and film score preparation. Finally, there is Visual Development, which emphasizes photography, figure modeling, form analysis, figure drawing, narrative principles, visual development for animation, character design, concept paintings, advanced exploration of perspective for video game design, and various other critical design disciplines. Each of these programs is dynamic, offering hands on experience and encouraging diverse portfolios. Graduates from this Academy have been hired by companies such as Sony, Riot Games, Crystal Dynamics, and Arenanet.