Will NYU’s New Video Game Degree End The Era Of Bro Gaming?

CREDIT: NYU Game Center

Gemini, Atlas Chen and Nick Zhang's 2014 ongoing thesis project.

This week, New York University announced an unconventional new degree program: undergraduates can now major in video game design. That might surprise people who haven’t noticed the games industry’s rise into the highly-technical $100 billion dollar industry it is today. Those who’ve been paying attention, though, might be surprised it took so long for games to make it to traditional academia.

NYU’s Game Center actually began offering a Master’s of Fine Arts in game design two years ago. This spring, it will accept its first undergraduate class of 20 students via internal transfer and begin offering a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in game design. Around 40 first-year applicants will begin in Fall 2015. The school takes a liberal arts approach to video games, not dissimilar from the way film school handles movies, teaching about theory and history together with the practical skills needed to develop a game.

Plenty of schools offer degrees in digital art, computer science, or interactive entertainment. But NYU is one of only two four-year colleges to actually offer a degree in video games. (The other is the University of Southern California.)

The Game Center draws some inspiration from the divide between two major film schools: The USC School of Cinematic Arts and The Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Because the University of Southern California is closer to the film industry in Hollywood, its graduates have a reputation for going on to make blockbusters. Tisch, located in New York City, is further from that action and more known for its innovative and artsy alumni. Similarly, the Game Center, far from the hub of west coast game studios, hopes to cultivate an independent take on games.

Graduates from the program will join an industry grappling with two serious, interconnected issues: the lack of diversity in video games and their production, and an industry-wide economic crisis.

According to leading gaming news sites, the big-money game industry known as ‘AAA games’, equivalent to film blockbusters, is in financial peril. Between development, marketing, and distribution, game budgets have shot past the $100 million mark, and profit margins are as low as 3 percent, even for successful companies. Even with a new generation of consoles out in 2014, sales are declining.

In video game website Polygon‘s excellent 2012 look at the AAA industry, experts saw the notable visual differences between the most expensively-made games and the second tier as a major problem. An independent film can do without the incredibly expensive computer graphics of a top-tier movie and still look good; it’s a different, but still appealing, aesthetic. But AAA games are all flashy graphics and visual one-upmanship. A game produced for cheap looks cheap.

The industry’s economic problems and its problems of representation are closely related. Huge budgets and thin profit margins make game studios very conservative, so they keep targeting the same demographic of 18-35 year-old males that they’ve successfully sold to before with violent war games that can often be outright racist.

As indie game maker and consultant Josh Sutphin explains in his piece, “The Missing Foundation of the Game Industry, game critics hate “bro-shooters,” violent games designed to appeal to young men, but the economic and creative conditions are such that those games are going to keep coming. Sutphin identifies outsourcing as another important culprit in the failing economic model of games. When games were smaller, every member of a development team would have some sort of creative role in the design process. Now, games are developed by ten or more contributing companies who produce technical work but have no creative input; instead, creative work is concentrated within a single company. A small, predominately white, male group of people (who are more focused on the bottom line than on innovation) get to call the creative shots.

Katherine Isbister, a professor at the NYU Game Center who also teaches in the Computer Science Department, said that considering the backgrounds of people in the master’s program, bachelor’s students will likely come from a variety of backgrounds. “We’ve had composers, actors, fashion designers, people with computer science backgrounds,” she said. “We have female and non-white people teaching classes, same thing with admissions… We’re not trying to recapitulate what the industry looks like now.”

Department Chair Frank Lantz said “it’s a challenge” to address diversity adequately. “Thinking about these issues is central to thinking about what makes a healthy form of culture.” He believes the Game Center’s film school-like approach to the study of games will better equip students to understand where their work fits into society. “Who makes these and who is it for?… What’s the political and economic infrastructure that’s often invisible?”

Lantz pointed to the EVO scholarship, which is awarded annually to one applicant from the fighting game community — an especially diverse faction of the gaming world — as an effort to diversify the student body. Economic diversity, though, will surely be more difficult to address at NYU, which is consistently ranked as one of the most expensive undergraduate educations in the nation.

A display for Assassin's Creed Unity at E3 2014, featuring its all-male cast of playable characters.

A display for Assassin’s Creed Unity at E3 2014, featuring its all-male cast of playable characters.

At last, criticism of the lack of racial and gender diversity in gaming has become a much-discussed issue. That’s long overdue, given that while African American and Hispanic youth play more video games on average than white youth and women are a bigger part of the game market than ever, nearly all the heroes of games are white men. There was loud public outcry in June, for instance, when Ubisoft, creators of the popular Assassin’s Creed series, said they wouldn’t include playable female characters in its multi-player cooperative mode because it would have been too much extra work.

Lantz agreed that the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the industry is a key problem for game quality. “You can’t extricate [these games] from the way that they’re made and who makes them. The fact that it is a boys’ club and that it is predominantly white [is why games] often have this boring vanilla aesthetic quality.”

Isbister accepted the label ‘indie’ for the program’s approach, “but that doesn’t mean working at the margins, or not having money. It means someone who is interested in pushing boundaries, working creatively.”

“Our old distribution models, who the gamer is, all that is changing so fast,” Isbister said. “I hope people who graduate from our program get the space to think about and build really interesting stuff that changes where things are going.”