Are you a gamer who dreams of one day getting paid to create video games? Have you ever played a video game and thought that you could do a better job coming up with the characters, dialogue, or rules? Maybe you should consider studying game design and entering a growing and lucrative field.
In this article, I'll explain game design, provide a list of the best video game design schools, and let you know how to use the list to help you find the right college for you.
What Is Game Design?
Game design is the field of making video games. Game designers help imagine and create the characters, plots, rules, interfaces, and environments for video games.The field of game design combines computer programming, creative writing, and graphic design.
Just because you like playing video games doesn’t necessarily mean you’d like designing them. I really enjoy eating, but I don’t like to cook. Game design combines technical and creative skills. You have to be skilled in math, art, and writing to be a competent game designer.
The Best Colleges for Video Game Design
Game design schools are colleges where you can study game design. At some of these schools, you can get a degree in game design. At others, you can study game design, but you’ll get your degree in a related field like computer science or interactive media.
For each school that made the list of the best video game design colleges, I linked to its programs that are most closely related to game design. Some of these programs are majors while others are minors or concentrations in related majors. Click on the link to read about the program, the school’s facilities, the program requirements, and the course offerings for the program.
Also, I wrote a few sentences on what makes each program unique. The best programs have extensive facilities dedicated to game design, provide thorough instruction in game design, and have a history of helping undergraduates land a quality job when they complete the program.
There are very few rankings of game design programs. The most referenced rankings come from Princeton Review, so my list comes from the Princeton Review rankings. For its 2015 rankings of the best schools to study game design, Princeton Review collaborated with PC Gamer to determine the top game design schools.
More than 60 data points were weighted to determine the rankings. The criteria to determine the rankings focused on curriculum, facilities, technology, and career services. Results were determined based on survey responses from school administrators on topics such as academic offerings, faculty credentials, graduates’ employment history, and starting salaries.
According to the survey, undergrads who study game design earn an average starting salary of $58,000, a 20% increase from last year and 28% more than the average starting salary for all 2014 undergrads. You can check out all of the survey questions here.
Below you’ll find the top 20 undergraduate schools to study game design in the United States. The Princeton Review list included international schools like The Art Institute of Vancouver in Canada and Abertay University in Scotland, but I excluded them from this list so that it focuses on the best programs in the US.
Game design grads can make good money. (Steven Depolo/Flickr)
About the Schools on This List
The schools that made the list are from every region of the US and represent diverse types of colleges. There are large public colleges like the University of Utah and Michigan State, smaller public colleges like Shawnee State, tech colleges like Worcester Polytechnic and Rensselaer Polytechnic, small private colleges like Hampshire College and Becker College, larger private colleges like the University of Southern California and Drexel, and a small for-profit university, DigiPen Institute of Technology.
This list includes very selective schools like MIT, which has an acceptance rate of 8%, as well as less-selective schools like Shawnee State, which has an acceptance rate of 83%.
The 20 Best Game Design Schools in the United States
From my research, USC and the University of Utah have the most prestigious programs, but all of these schools have well-regarded game design programs and impressive facilities where you can play and design games.
- Acceptance Rate: 17%
- Location: Los Angeles, CA
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 19,000
USC's location in Los Angeles gives it a distinct advantage in helping students gain employment after graduation because many of the top game design jobs are in LA. Students who want to focus on design and production can pursue the Interactive Media and Game Design degrees through the school of Cinematic Arts. Those who are more interested in the technical aspects of designing and developing games can pursue the Computer Science (Games) degree through the Viterbi School of Engineering. The breadth and depth of game design offerings separate USC from other game design schools.
The USC marching band. (David Yu/Flickr)
- Acceptance Rate: 82%
- Location: Salt Lake City, UT
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 24,492
According to the Princeton Review rankings, the University of Utah has the #1 graduate program for game design. For its undergraduate program, the School of Computing and the Department of Film and Media Arts offer interdisciplinary emphases in Entertainment Arts and Engineering. Students with a computer science emphasis focus on the technical aspects of video games. Students with a film and media arts emphasis focus on the tools and techniques required for game design, drawing, and storyboarding. The program culminates with a year-long senior project where students build a video game from the ground up.
- Acceptance Rate: 66%
- Location: Redmond, WA
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 978
DigiPen is a for-profit school that specializes in preparing students for careers in the video game industry. It began enrolling students in 1994, and it has received substantial support from Nintendo. Class sizes are small with a faculty to student ratio of 1:13. Students from DigiPen have won more awards at the Independent Games Festival than those from any other school. DigiPen's Redmond campus is near more than 96 game development studios.
- Acceptance Rate: 75%
- Location: Philadelphia, PA
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 14,503
At Drexel, the game design program is a collaborative effort between the digital media program and the computer science department. Drexel's game design program offers some impressive resources including an 80-seat 3D theater, a green screen/motion capture studio, and audio recording studios. For the Tetris game he created in 2014, Professor Frank Lee was given a Guinness World Record for the largest architectural video game display.
Main Building at Drexel. (Tom Ipri/Flickr)
- Acceptance Rate: 60%
- Location: Rochester, NY
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 15,400
Rochester Institute of Technology incorporates cooperative education into its game design program. Cooperative education is a full-time, paid work experience that provides students with an opportunity to learn on the job in a real-world industry setting. Graduates of RIT's game design and development programs have gone on to work at top gaming companies including Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Vicarious Visions, and Nickelodeon.
- Acceptance Rate: 69%
- Location: East Lansing, MI
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 38,786
Michigan State offers an undergraduate specialization in game design and development. Michigan State is also home to the Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab, an association of game research and design faculty and students at Michigan State whose mission is to "design innovative prototypes, techniques, and complete games for entertainment and learning and to advance state of the art knowledge about social and individual effects of digital games."
- Acceptance Rate: 83%
- Location: Portsmouth, OH
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 4,114
Shawnee State offers a bachelor's degree in gaming and simulation, which is a computer science degree. Also, it offers a bachelor's degree in gaming arts, a Bachelor of Fine Arts program with a concentration in 3D modeling and texturing. Furthermore, it offers a minor in game design. The game design program graduated its first class in the spring of 2008.
- Acceptance Rate: 63%
- Location: Worcester, MA
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 2,021
Becker is home to the Massachusetts Digital Game Institute, which is a think tank related to the video game industry. Massachusetts is also a favorable location for jobs in game design. Students at Becker have access to a high-performance computer lab, a six-camera video motion capture system, and 3D design software.
- Acceptance Rate: 70%
- Location: Amherst, MA
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,400
Students at Hampshire are given a great deal of freedom in designing their own course of study. Many game design and development students create their own games with the help of peers and advisers. Some game design courses you can take at Hampshire include pixel bending and analog game design.
- Acceptance Rate: 41%
- Location: Troy, NY
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 5,557
Rensselaer has a game studies minor and offers a BS degree in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences. It also hosts GameFest, an annual symposium and competition that features game design students from universities across the Northeast.
- Acceptance Rate: 25%
- Location: Pittsburgh, PA
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 6,309
Carnegie Mellon has long been regarded as one of the best colleges for science and technology study in the US. Its game design concentration is part of the Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology Network at Carnegie Mellon. Students in the game design concentration study dramatic narrative and character development, interface and interaction architecture development, visual and sound synthesis, special effects and performance capture, programming and engine development, and game assessment and redesign.
The program is designed to be both interdisciplinary and collaborative. Students work with their peers and faculty advisers, and they use the skills they develop in their majors.
- Acceptance Rate: 67%
- Location: Peoria, IL
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 4,588
Bradley University offers a game design major and minor. At Bradley, game design is part of both the Department of Interactive Media and the Department of Computer Science & Information Systems. Bradley also offers concentrations in game design, animation, and computer game technology.
Bradley University. (Bradley University/Flickr)
- Acceptance Rate: 8%
- Location: Cambridge, MA
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 4,512
MIT is home to the MIT Game Lab, which brings together scholars, creators, and technologists to teach, conduct research, and develop new approaches to applied game design and construction. MIT doesn't have a dedicated game design program but instead integrates game design into its world-class education in the sciences and technology.
- Acceptance Rate: 71%
- Location: Burlington, VT
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 2,000
Champlain offers a game design major for students. Also, Champlain has a dedicated Game Studio where students can collaborate and build their own video games. Champlain has new multimedia, 3D art, and game production labs. Furthermore, game design students are given the opportunity to study abroad in Montreal, home of the Montreal Game Summit and the Montreal International Game Developers Association. Courses in Montreal are taught by game industry professionals in collaboration with game faculty at the main campus.
- Acceptance Rate: 76%
- Location: Big Rapids, MI
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 13,357
At Ferris State, all students in the Digital Animation and Game Design program are required to complete an internship to get real-world experience and make connections to help them professionally after they graduate. Ferris State also offers a Peer Mentor Program where sophomore, junior, and senior Digital Animation and Game Design majors serve as role models and help first-year students succeed academically.
The Digital Animation and Game Design program is focused on helping students reach their career goals. Students are given instruction on how to prepare a professional portfolio and demo reel and how to find a job in their chosen field.
- Acceptance Rate: 52%
- Location: Worcester, MA
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 4.235
Worcester Polytechnic's Interactive Media and Game Development program focuses on merging art with technology. Like many of the other top programs, WPI encourages a hands-on approach to learning that allows students to create their own games and collaborate with their peers.
- Acceptance Rate: 59%
- Location: Richardson, TX
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 14,300
Students at UT-Dallas study game design in the Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication program. This program merges the innovation processes of artists, scientists, and engineers. UT-Dallas also has a student organization called the Student Game Developer Alliance which aims to provide education and events for students interested in the video game industry.
- Acceptance Rate: 65%
- Location: Savannah, GA
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 12,000
All of the students at SCAD are aspiring artists or designers. Students study game design in the interactive design and game development program. For two consecutive years, students at SCAD won the E3 College Game Competition. Also, Savannah's Collaborative Learning Center connects students with industry leaders.
- Acceptance Rate: 32%
- Location: New York, NY
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 24,985
NYU initiated its game design program in 2015. The program is already well-regarded because NYU offers its students access to advanced technology, it has a reputable computer science department, and the game design program is located in the famous Tisch School of the Arts. Not only does NYU offer a game design major and minor, but there is an entire department dedicated to game design.
- Acceptance Rate: 32%
- Location: Boston, MA
- Undergraduate Enrollment: 13,510
Northeastern's game design program combines digital arts, design, and computer science. Northeastern has a co-op program that allows students to work at some of the country's top gaming companies. Northeastern partners with Microsoft, Zynga, Tencent Boston, Tapwalk, and the SAIC Corporation. Students are able to gain experience working at these companies before they graduate.
How Should You Use This List?
If you want to go to a top game design school, you should research the schools on this list that interest you to determine if they’re schools you should apply to or attend. Figure out whether you prefer a program that focuses solely on game design or if you want to attend a school that will offer you a broader, more interdisciplinary education. What aspects of game design interest you the most? Which schools offer you opportunities to reach your specific academic and professional goals?
Even if you know you want to pursue game design, there are many factors to consider to help determine if a college is a good fit for you including size, location, selectivity, and cost. Look at the school’s website and game design programs and use guidebooks, college finders, and other ranking lists to help you in the college selection process. If possible, consult with teachers, counselors, parents, current students, and alumni.
Also, keep in mind that many students change their majors or career goals while they’re in college. Even though you may be determined to pursue game design now, after taking game design classes in college or an inspiring course in another field, you may change your plans.
Therefore, you should consider attending a school where you’ll be happy, receive a good education, and be able to pursue your interests even if you eventually decide not to study game design.
If selectivity is an important factor for you in choosing a college, take a look at the colleges with the lowest acceptance rates.
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.