The game designer as artist

As a game arts major, you can combine your passions for art and gaming to shape the future of play.

Five thousand years ago, Sumerians were playing backgammon on the banks of the Tigris River; 4,000 years ago, scholars were making strategic moves on the Go board at the Chinese imperial court; 1,500 years ago, Persians were exclaiming "shah mat!" (checkmate!) while playing the new game of chess imported from India.

Today, games continue to play a large role in our lives and the field of game design and development is booming. Whether it's playing Apples to Apples or Settlers of Catan on family game night, whiling away a commute playing Animal Crossing on your phone, getting into character for a D&D night at your local game store, meeting like-minded gamers from around the world on a Minecraft server, or playing Last of Us on your game console, games have the power to bring us together, entertain us, immerse us in new worlds, and let us imagine new ways of being.

With games of all types permeating our lives, you might be asking yourself: ”Can I transform my gaming hobby into a career and become a professional game designer? Can I really spend my workdays thinking about and playing games?” The answer is yes! As both analog games and video games experience unprecedented popularity, employment for game designers is more abundant, varied, and lucrative than ever. According to industry statistics, in 2021 there are nearly 300,000 video game workers in the United States alone. And demand for game designers is predicted to grow over the next decade, with the creation of at least 30,000 additional jobs.

Three people play a board game in a classroom.

Mystery Bait, a game designed by students Megan Chen, Eli Chang, Scott Underwood, and Tyler De Rosa.

How to become a game designer

There are multiple paths to a career in game design and development, but the best way to start is to study gaming in college. Increasingly, video game companies are looking to hire candidates with bachelor's degrees in game arts. But how is game arts different from other degree programs for game designers?

In a game arts program, you focus more on what you are building than how you build it. Game arts students are creative artists who choose the medium of games to express themselves and say something meaningful about the world.

“A game arts program is not for the hardcore computer engineer,” says Dr. Zachary Walter, chair of the new BFA Game Arts at the California College of the Arts (CCA). “You’ll learn game programming, engineering, and animation, but the focus is more on the art of game design. A foundation in the fine arts prepares students for all sorts of game work."

As part of a fine arts education, game arts programs train students to think, see, and make with a critical eye. "There are so many different ways to respond to the world creatively, and all of them are valid and needed," says Allison Smith, dean of Fine Arts at CCA. "That's why we are excited to add a BFA in Game Arts to the college's Fine Arts division."

Games arts programs like CCA's offer high-level training in the artistic, technical, and conceptual tools of professional game development. They prepare students to build their own unique creative practices as game designers and to remain at the forefront of the field of game arts as it evolves in the coming years and decades.

What do you study as a game arts student?

As a game arts student, you'll do more than just study game design: you'll develop as an artistic leader who'll shape the future of games and play. Walter says, "At CCA, we view play as a platform for empowerment, social critique, and personal expression. From the first class through your last, you'll learn through making and playing games."

A game arts program begins with a solid grounding in artistic practice. You'll start by developing core studio skills in drawing, 2D, 3D, and 4D (interactive and time-based) media. Animation and digital art and design classes will enable you to bring your unique stories to life on the screen. Interactive storytelling classes will elevate your narrative chops so your games will forge powerful connections with gamers across the world. And courses in both game development, programming, and production will show you how to transform your dream game into a reality.

At CCA, Game Arts majors are empowered to address complex societal issues through game design. "We focus on the positive impact game makers can have on our culture by engaging with timely issues such as climate change and social justice," says Walter.

For example, in 2019 CCA students designed board games that play out various climate change risk scenarios. Games were exhibited at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a contemporary art center in downtown San Francisco, giving these emerging game designers an audience beyond the college.

One CCA student designed and exhibited a Monopoly-like experience called The Other 99%. Each player is a real estate developer, but one player starts with three times as much money as the others. As sea levels rise, those who have more money can afford to escape to higher ground, while the other players have to work with one another and then vote on how to pay for solutions. Through art and entertainment, the game helps players see a complex and pressing issue through a new lens.

In another CCA Game Arts studio, an international student used her own experience of trying to get a U.S. visa as the basis for a game. As the player gets closer to the end of the game, and the visa process, the options narrow and the visa becomes more difficult to obtain, just as in real life. "Through a fun and engaging game, I came to understand more about the experiences of some of international students," says Walter.

"Projects like these look great in a game design portfolio," notes Walter. "They demonstrate art and design skills but go deeper—they engage with important issues. These students will stand out in a field of other game makers because they have the critical capacity to engage with the ethical and social dimensions of today's world."

CCA’s Game Arts home room.

At CCA, students study the art of game design in the Game Arts “home room.”

Why study game arts at an art and design school?

Studying game arts in an art and design school has definite advantages. For one, you'll be immersed in a culture that fosters creativity and curiosity, which will help you build a lifelong artistic practice as a game designer.

Game designer Babak Saadat, a recent CCA graduate, says that studying in an art and design school allowed him to find his own story. His video game Harukaze—a single-player, turn-based RPG set in a world inspired by Japanese folktales—started as a class project. Now he’s continuing to develop it after graduation with plans of taking it to market.

"Studying gaming at CCA was ideal for me," he says. "I learned how to draw, for one, and I was able to refine my characters through collaboration with other artists." That's just one example of how being part of a community of artists and designers will help you achieve your dreams.

At an art school, you'll also have all the tools of the trade at your fingertips—including state-of-the-art technology and access to art-making and prototyping programs. At CCA, for example, you can scan or print physical game elements in the Digital Fine Arts Studio. You can build characters with sanders and vacuum-forming machines in the Model Making Studio. Or you can create brand-new worlds in the Rapid Prototyping Studio, where you can practice everything from laser cutting to computer-controlled, high-tech carpentry with a CNC router. You’ll graduate with experience making professional-quality games for a variety of media, audiences, and dimensions.

An art and design school will give you opportunities to learn from faculty experts in related disciplines like animation and interaction design. Shared classes and events, and opportunities to collaborate with students from those majors will broaden your skills and experiences. Along the way, you'll also build a lifelong network of fellow creatives.

In a fine arts–focused game arts program like CCA's, you’ll also benefit from art-school critiques. Faculty and practicing game artists will evaluate your work and provide you with valuable feedback that will help you develop your practice in the art of game design. In other words, a degree in game arts can help you become a more versatile maker and artist—and get you ready for a career as a game designer, animator, developer, programmer, or producer, whether you choose to join an established video game company or a small indie studio or decide to strike out on your own.

What can you do as a game designer?

When it comes to employment as a game designer, a degree in game arts gives you a lot of options. "Through art, the whole world opens up to you, and there are a million different things that you can do. It’s infinite," says Smith.

CCA games arts students enter the job market with a game design portfolio that demonstrates mastery of an impressive range of game-making, from analog to digital, from personal to political, and from traditional to experimental. "They are uniquely qualified to bring new ways of thinking to industry," says Walter.

Imagine yourself as a newly minted game developer, game concept artist, game producer, game animator, user interface artist, environment artist, level designer, narrative designer, game designer, game writer, or game programmer. Game arts graduates also find positions in game engineering and other more technical aspects of game design.

Your work opportunities are not limited just to video games. If you’re interested in analog games—board games, card games, escape rooms—the billion-dollar table-top games industry offers opportunities to work as a game producer, game designer, 3D sculptor, or production artist.

If you’ve got an entrepreneurial spirit, a game arts curriculum prepares you to distribute your own digital games directly to consumers through digital platforms, including Steam, GOG, and Google and Apple app marketplaces.

Game artists and 3D sculptors can also find jobs as independent sellers of 3D-sculpted or 3D-printed designs or producers of art assets that are sold directly within game software suites, such as Unity Game Engine and Unreal Game Engine.

“When you’re an artist who works with games it opens up a lot of possibilities,” Walter says. “A game artist learns to wear many different hats, versus someone who only focuses on one or two aspects of the game-making process.” This sort of flexibility can make game arts graduates highly desirable on the job market.