School Days Influences: Decoding the World of Video Game Designers
Six pros share how they went from playing games to making them and what it took to break into the booming gaming industry
As the covid-19 pandemic put much of the United States on lockdown, one industry that has prospered is video games. Through June, U.S. sales of games, consoles, and accessories hit $6.6 billion—a 19% increase over last year, and the most since 2010, the NDP Group reported this month.
Gaming is big business, and it has never been more popular. But playing video games can be more than just passive consumption or mindless social-distance entertainment. They can also train a new type of athlete. The rise of esports (a boom industry in its own right) has given Generation Z the realistic option of playing video games as both a pre- and post-college career. U.S. high schools and colleges are increasingly embracing video games as a varsity-level sport with their own leagues and governing bodies, while universities are awarding scholarships to fill out their esports teams, just as they do their basketball and football squads.
But video games wouldn’t exist without designers—those unseen creatives who digitally craft gamers’ favorite titles. As esports programs gain traction, they are leading an increasing number of higher-education institutions to invest in degree-bearing game design programs. One of the most elite is New York University’s Game Center, which awards a BFA and MFA in game design. It also offers a variety of scholarships that serve to help increase the number of women and minority designers, support independent game development, and keep designers in the New York City market, which boasts companies like Take-Two Interactive, owners of Rockstar Games and 2K, and Avalanche Studios Group.
The Elective spoke with gaming professionals who have either attended or worked with NYU’s Game Center to learn how their high school and college years developed their professional skills: designer Zeke Virant (Avalanche) and Brian S. Chung (The Sheep’s Meow); Game Center professor Winnie Song and adjunct Jeff Petriello; recent Game Center graduate Jordan Jones-Brewster; and Geneva Heyward, a current student interning within the industry.
A student works on a project at the NYU Game Center.
Where did you go to high school? What habits or hobbies did you develop during those years that contribute to working as a professional game designer?
Zeke Virant: I was a boarding student at Baylor School, a private school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The coursework was rigorous, but I always found time for music and video games. My dream in high school was to write and perform original music with a band, so I spent the majority of my free time trying to play music with other students. It was discouraging and difficult trying to put together jam sessions and form bands, but learning how to accommodate others’ tastes and trying to become a better collaborator has been one of the most important lessons in my creative career. By the end of high school, it was actually fun to play in a band!
Jordan Jones-Brewster: I went to Medgar Evers College Preparatory School, a confusingly named public school in Brooklyn. It was around that time that I started to critically play video games, but I also worked at two law firms as a part of an internship program, with the intention of becoming a lawyer. During my free time, I would sometimes study logic puzzles, knowing that I would be taking the LSAT later on in life. Looking back, learning the design of those logic puzzles may have been my first foray into trying to understand game design.
Jeff Petriello: I attended Wayne Hills High School in Wayne, New Jersey. I played a ton of games in high school: after-school Dungeons & Dragons with my friends, LAN parties for Diablo, Super Smash Bros. at every birthday party. It definitely helped build my literacy in games. I also was a fencer (the first esport!) and took a leadership role in Student Government and band, which helped me develop my organizational and interpersonal skills.
Winnie Song: I went to high school in Markham District High School in Ontario, Canada. The activities there that contributed most to me now making and having a voice in games were editing our magazine, Vox, playing percussion in the school band, and designing the yearbook. As for hobbies, I played video games. Believe it or not, my mother often encouraged this over doing homework and getting good grades.
Geneva Heyward: I went to Art and Design High School in Manhattan, but I feel like what really helped develop my hobbies is the School of Interactive Arts after-school program. I had a bit of a passion for drawing before attending it, but I gave up on trying to write stories and make music. At that program I was inspired and encouraged to explore different artistic mediums, which allowed me to start putting all these skills together for my games.
Where did you attend college? What sorts of skills did you develop there that you now utilize as a professional game designer?
Zeke Virant: I went to Bard College in New York for undergrad. I studied music, and after three years of doing odd jobs and writing and performing music, I attended the New York University Game Center, where I received a master’s degree in game design. The Game Center taught me a lot and helped bridge the gaps in my music background and game development: how to best utilize feedback from people, how to hone and iterate my designs, how to present and pitch my work, and how to constrain ideas and develop games in a timely fashion.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: For my undergraduate degree, I went to Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y. While at Pace, I was a member of several student clubs and organizations, I was an RA, and I joined the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. A large responsibility for all of those was event organizing, and I had a tendency to create and organize interactive games, events, and role-playing experiences, though I didn't recognize that as game design at the time.
Jeff Petriello: I studied philosophy and English literature at Columbia University in New York. My focus was on logic, which is incredibly useful in designing functional systems and a good basis for programming, as well. I also took a few studio art classes—drawing and photography—which really helped hone my visual intuition and artistic practice.
Winnie Song: I attended OCAD University, in Toronto, where I got a BFA in graphic design and a minor in expanded animation. The most useful skills I developed there for game development were motion design and video editing. The classes that influenced me most for designing my games now were my sci-fi literature, TV writing, and psychology classes. These instilled in me a strong philosophy for making games for a living.
Brian S. Chung: I majored in fine arts at Amherst College. There wasn’t any way to study games directly, but it was there that I first began to engage in aesthetics, design thinking, and highly process-based workflows. I also developed an eye for whether something is working creatively or not, and the ability to articulate that to people in different disciplines. Through my projects in creating interactive art, I also learned Flash (ActionScript) and Python.
Geneva Heyward: I'm currently attending NYU's Game Center and I've been learning how to manage my time, how to network, and how to design better, more balanced games. I'm also minoring in computer science so that I can still further improve my programming knowledge while learning more design-focused skills. Thanks to my courses, I've been using what I've learned at my current internship and for my side projects.
Looking back, was there something unique about your particular campus environment, geography, or regional culture that impacted the development of your skills?
Zeke Virant: I’ve always found New York City’s game development scene to be very welcoming and diverse. It’s amazing to see video game developers, board game developers, artists, and so on all at the same events and offering each other detailed feedback. From my very first weeks studying game design, I was lucky to tap into the community and start sharing my work-in-progress games with others, which is a crucial part of video game development. New York City was the perfect place for me to gather feedback and expand my horizons.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: Being in New York City my graduate degree in game design at NYU was huge for the development of my design skills. The city already has a rich indie game scene, and NYU became a centralized location where local game developers, as well as students, would come together to test each other's games at the NYU Game Center's Playtest Thursday events. Brooklyn has also been my home my whole life, and being able to design here allowed me to always use neighborhoods and landmarks that I grew up around as inspiration for my work.
Jeff Petriello: Absolutely. New York City is an incredible place to experience the arts. I was lucky enough to be in an environment where I could actually go see a lot of the art objects and historical documents I was learning and writing about. That kind of hands-on exploration is what fuels a lot of my artistic inspirations. You can't get ideas if you don't go out and fish for them.
Winnie Song: I think the fact that Canada is a pretty socialist country, and that I was well supported by my family and government throughout my secondary education in the arts, had a big impact. It’s something I discovered later that a lot of my peers in grad school had gone without.
Brian S. Chung: I really appreciated the freedom of having no required courses and being able to study whatever I liked. (I understand that this is unusual for most colleges.) Early on in college, I was a victim of, or a witness to, a number of racist attacks. I appreciated that my campus had optional theme housing based on affinity groups, which made things safer for people of color and other marginalized groups. Looking back, it’s soft skills like understanding motivation and social dynamics that have helped me in a career based on teamwork, whereas specific tools and programming languages become outdated and replaceable.
Geneva Heyward: I think the fact New York City has such a big indie game community impacted my academic design skills. Instead of aiming to create these large scale, open-world games, I've been inspired to create things that are smaller and focused on things I'm passionate about. I've also been able to interact with a lot of wonderful people, so the community here has helped enhance my collaboration skills.
How long after college graduation did you begin to design games professionally? Did you develop any habits or skills in the interim that you utilize?
Zeke Virant: I started designing games professionally immediately after graduating from the NYU Game Center in 2014, but I had a three-year interim period between completing undergrad and starting graduate school in 2012. That period was tough and helped me realize how much I needed a network of collaborators and friends. Creating work in a vacuum, even for a short period of time, is challenging, and for me, it has always had a detrimental effect on my work. This is one of the chief reasons I work as a part of a design team rather than as a solo designer or developer. By the time I entered graduate school, I was already starting to engage with games communities and trying to find other artists and designers.
Before social distancing mandates kept students from collaborating in person, NYU Game Center students like these would work together on gaming projects.
Jordan Jones-Brewster: It took me five years and three career changes after graduating with my BA before I decided on getting my MFA in game design and pursuing that as a career. In that time, I would write daily critical papers on video games and that helped define what would become the foundation of my design philosophies. Looking at games with a critical eye while also critiquing my own writing work became integral to understanding the iterative process that comes with games design.
Jeff Petriello: It took me 11 years after graduating college to land my first professional game industry job. Every single experience I had between then and now is useful in some sense. I learned production and marketing skills working in film and digital media for six years, and I attended a full stack web development boot camp to brush up on my technical abilities. I trusted my gut to lead me in the right direction all along the way. I was uninterested in studying anything at my college that would have prepared me directly for the path I took—although now I teach undergrads game design at NYU, so the opportunities have definitely grown immensely over the past decade.
Winnie Song: I attended NYU Game Center for an MFA in game design straight out of university, and I began to design games professionally during my second and final year with my thesis project, BADBLOOD. I went on after graduation to work as a game designer at Square Enix Montreal. The main skills I’d developed during this time were coding, working in teams, and speaking publicly. I developed and gave talks about the importance of visual design in games and the necessity of violence in video games at varied events and conferences. Giving these talks also gave me an interest in teaching game design, which is what I do now full time at the NYU Game Center.
Brian S. Chung: I actually began before completing college, but early on in my career when working as a freelancer I was sometimes underemployed. I was shy back then, but I forced myself to network and make friends in the industry. Knowing a lot of people always made it easier to find work. I also grew into contributing to the community myself by also hosting my own events and conferences on the side.
Geneva Heyward: I technically started designing games professionally before I even graduated high school, but that period between high school graduation and college I definitely learned a lot about what it's like to showcase a game at an event. I was still working on my Kickstarter game, Skate & Date, the summer before college, and during that period I feel like I learned a lot of networking skills. I had to speak and pitch my game on the spot, which allowed me to use what I learned at those conventions when I had to tell someone about it online or even offline at future showcases.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.