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Opinion: Liberal Arts Education for Designers

Opinion: Liberal Arts Education for Designers

August 11, 2011 | By Lisa Brown

August 11, 2011 | By Lisa Brown
More: Console/PC, Design

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, Insomniac Games' Lisa Brown explains how liberal arts colleges can be an option for aspiring game designers, sharing personal examples from her own liberal arts educational background.]

For a high school graduate who is looking to eventually get into games, there are plentiful options for higher education, and a liberal arts school is but one. I will touch on why I think it's a useful route for blossoming game designers, and root up some examples of how my undergraduate experience has come back to help me in my career.


Now, since this is an education post, I feel I must make all the usual disclaimers: There is no one perfect educational route for anyone. You should find out what works best for you. It's not the degree that matters, it's the what you can do. Education is what you personally make of it, whether you go to a big name school or are self-taught. The more important thing is not what you learn, but learning how to learn. Did I hit them all? Okay, now that that's out of the way, let's move on.

What is a Liberal Arts College?

Centre College, my undergraduate alma mater, is a small liberal arts school in Kentucky.

A liberal arts college is an undergraduate education institution that focuses on giving students a broad exposure to many disciplines in addition to his or her chosen major. This is not the same thing as a liberal arts degree, which seems to be a kind of generalist degree at some schools, and which I don't know anything about. Liberal arts education contrasts with a technical or professional curriculum, which instead focuses on a particular skill or preparing the student for a particular career path.

So basically, students at liberal arts schools still have majors; it's just that the math majors also take courses in arts and humanities, and the art students still take math and science, and so on. Frequently, as in my own case, liberal arts students go on to graduate school to do more focused education. If you're curious for more details about liberal arts schools, head on over to Wikipedia.

20/20 Hindsight

 So what does a liberal arts education have to do with game development? I must make it clear, I did not go to college to become a game designer. I didn't even figure out I wanted to be a game designer until well afterwards (I'll save that story for my inevitable "How did Lisa Get Into Games" article). I showed up at undergrad having no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but knowing I wanted to double-major in something, because I was insatiably curious and wanted to learn EVERYTHING. A career in games was honestly the last thing on my mind.

However, when I later got into game design, I realized that I had been really, REALLY well-prepared for the job by my undergraduate liberal arts education.

According to this cryptic diagram, the original liberal arts were grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. But that was like the 5th century.

In game design, you pull experience and knowledge from many different fields: art, math, technology, science, humanities, literature, and so on. Having an understanding of art and an understanding of how programmers think are the oft-cited examples of needing interdisciplinary skills, but there are many others.

For example, knowing a bit of psychology helps you understand how to anticipate, guide, and motivate your players. Knowledge of history, religion, and anthropology can help you create fantastic yet believable worlds. Experience in math helps immensely with balancing and tuning. Thus, an education that focuses on broad exposure to many disciplines can yield loads of great stuff for the making of a game designer.

This episode of Extra Credits does a fine job of touching on the many different areas that can help a game designer, so I'd recommend checking it out if you haven't seen it.

Looking back, liberal arts undergrad may have been the perfect route for me to have taken to get to game design. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, but I'm hoping that my hindsight might be able to turn into foresight for someone else. If you want to be a game designer, and you also want to pursue a higher education, a games-specific program is not your only option. Consider investigating a liberal arts school and seeing if it fits your style, and if so, know that you will be gaining applicable knowledge and skills that can later be used in games.

Personal Examples

 So let's get into the nitty gritty examples of what I learned in my liberal arts education that has had a direct application in my day-to-day work as a game designer. Originally I was going to use an example from every single class I took in my four-year undergraduate career, but then I realized that that would take like FOREVER. So I'm compacting things a bit for readability, but do know that whether in the course material directly, or indirectly via some skill or experience learned via the course, I really do feel like everything I studied in undergrad has resurfaced more than once throughout my career making games.

For an example of what an undergraduate liberal arts education experience might look like, here are all the classes I took over four years. I double majored in visual art (with a focus on hot glass) and computer science, so I've divided my classes into those two columns, plus one for everything else. Note that I included math classes in the computer science column, because most of them were requirements for the major, and also it made my table columns a little more even.

ArtComputer ScienceEverything Else
  Drawing I  Intro to Computer Science  Intro to Physical Anthropology
  Drawing II  Intermediate Programming and Data Structures  Personal Safety
  Painting I  Differential Calculus  Intro to Humanities I
  Hot Glass I  Computer Organization  Intro to Psychology
  Survey of Western Art I  Theoretical Foundations of Computer Science  Introduction to Shakespeare
  Survey of Western Art II  Discrete Mathematics  Drama Practicum – Prop Design and Construction
  Painting II  Theory/Construction of Compilers  Health and Physical Fitness
  Hot Glass II  Operating Systems  Development of Modern World II
  Painting III  Design & Analysis of Algorithms  Intro to Humanities II
  Advanced Glass Blowing  Database Systems  World Religions
  Art & History of Glass Furnaces (wherein we actually built a new glass furnace)  Building a Beowulf Cluster  Biblical History
  Hot Glass III   Drama Study Abroad – Regional Theatre (wherein we went all over England and saw 30 plays in 3 1/2 weeks)
  Northern Mannerist & Baroque Art   Chemistry and the Modern World
  Sculpting & Hot Formed Glass   Drama Practicum – Prop Design and Construction
  Hot Glass IV   Drama Practicum – Electrician and Lightboard Operator
  Senior Exhibition (Glass)   Drama Practicum – Props Design and Construction

Alright, time for some specifics examples…


Process shots of a painting I did of my fish. Iteration!
  • Basic art stuff - composition, color theory, all that sort of thing. I not only use it when designing spaces, but when communicating with my artists.
  • Iteration - oil painting was the first time I really grasped the idea of iterating on something as a method. In oil painting, you work with lots and lots of layers. So you slap something down rough to begin with, and then you add another layer of paint, and then another and another, until you get it closer and closer to the final product. Sometimes, you've been working in a ton of layers on one part and it's just not working with the whole, so you paint over it, no fear!! (I'll admit, it took me awhile to get comfortable with that last bit)By the time I got into game development, I was well-practiced with the idea of iteration, so the process of making something quickly, trying it, changing it, trying it again, changing it, for a billion iterations came really naturally to me. For that matter, so did the inevitable experience of iterating on something, realizing it just wasn't working, and scrapping it without heartache.
  • Flow State - I learned about the flow state from painting landscapes. Have you ever had to paint a landscape? It's absolutely miserable. You have to haul all this crap outside, sometimes across town to the site you've picked, and it's hot and sticky, and bugs fly and get stuck on your canvas, and grass and leaves get mixed up in your palette, and the light is always changing, and people keep coming up and looking over your shoulder. MISERABLE! In order to get myself through these assignments, I learned how to get myself into the flow state (though I didn't know that's what it was called).I taught myself how to get in a mental self-sustaining state such that I could work in a focused way on a painting for several hours straight, and feed on my own energy and not get tired. It was critical to being able to paint those damned landscapes. Now, being able to get yourself into a flow state is helpful in any job, but in game design, you are often trying to find a way to put someone else into that state: the player! Having a first-hand understanding of what it feels like to be in the flow state, and understanding from experience the ways of getting there has helped me tremendously when designing experiences for players.

Illustration of flow state. You've probably seen this before.

Computer Science

  • Programming – This is kind of one of the more obvious parallels. Brenda Brathwaite gave a good presentation on why it's important for designers to learn how to code, so I'll just point you there instead of rewriting it.
  • Understanding the Medium – when you make video games, it's always helpful to understand the medium of the computer. It has helped me understand things like technical constraints, how to debug weird scripting problems, etc. Also, ever since having to build a Beowulf Cluster, I have gained enormous respect and understanding for massive multiplayer games that run on server clusters.
  • Problem Solving – When you have to figure out why your code won't run, you learn all kinds of problem solving skills. These have been indispensable to me in game design, and not just in figuring out why my script isn't running properly. Game design is all about solving problems: How can I make the player feel x under y constraints? How can I fix this bug without compromising my artist? Why are most of the players dying in this weird spot? Why did that playtester DO that??
Glass Blowing

I made this shiny thing for my schoolin
  • As a glass blower, I learned tons about design and other art-related skills and concepts. But I also find myself constantly recalling my experience in the glass studio as a source of inspiration for…other things…
  • Effects and Weapons and Crazy Ideas - There were a few things in the glass studio that we were not allowed to do. However, the senior TA felt that they were important to my liberal arts education, so he taught me anyway! When you gather hot glass out of the furnace and onto the end of the pipe, you often trail off excess glass into a big bucket of water. This creates what is called a Prince Rupert Drop. It's a long piece of glass that is extremely tempered from the rapid cooling, like you can beat on it with a hammer and it won't break. However, if you take a pair of tin snips and clip off the very end of the tail, the entire thing shatters into a powdery burst! Very dangerous! Also, perhaps good reference for a shattering or disintegration effect. Another forbidden skill I was taught: We used Mapp Gas Torches frequently when working with hot glass, to heat specific portions of a piece. My TA taught me that you can take one of these and insert it into an empty soda can, then press down the trigger just enough so that gas comes out. After filling the can with gas, you could trigger the spark on the torch and the can would launch across the studio! We probably could have killed someone! What a great weapon idea!
Chemistry and History

  • Why am I lumping these two weird things together? Well, because both were my first exposure to understanding systems design.
  • Chemistry is system, and learning chemistry meant I learned ways of breaking down and representing parts of the system, and seeing what the rules were and how elements of the system worked together. Breaking down a game system always reminds me of the approaches I learned in Chemistry, and sometimes I think back on it when figuring out how to visually represent systems for my own use.
  • History taught me about systems design, too, only on a macro scale. World history is a fascinating (if not disturbing and occasionally depressing) study of cause and effect.

The Yellow Boat was a play I worked on in undergrad. The entire set was white, so all of the color and mood and set variation was done with lighting.

  • Interdisciplinary Teamwork - I did enough work in theater in undergrad that I probably could have swung it as a minor, and in fact that was my first career path out of school. Of all the things I've done, the theater comes closest to game development in that sensation of teamwork. In both, the teams are interdisciplinary: In the theater you have carpenters, electricians, sound designers, stage managers, actors, props designers, scenic painters – all have very different skillsets. This feels similar to game development, wherein you have artists, designers, programmers, sound designers, producers, etc. Theater is where I first learned how to work on a large, interdisciplinary team to create an entertainment experience for others.
  • Lighting- while most of my undergraduate theater experience was in props and stage management, I did spend some time as an electrician, working under a lighting designer. The parallels between stage lighting and level lighting are uncanny, and I learned a lot about creating mood and atmosphere with lighting that carries right over into level design and working with my artists and level lighters.
  • Crunch – They have crunch in the theater, too. It's called "Tech Week" and "Strike" and "Load in/Load out," and it's even worse than in game development because you have to lift heavy things. Though I have been extremely fortunate that I have yet to crunch as hard in game development as I did in the theater, it still taught me how to mentally and emotionally manage myself during those times.

These examples are already getting lengthy, and I'd rather not bore you with a novel here. However, if some of you are still curious, let's have an activity!

Leave a comment indicating an undergraduate class from my list up there, and I will reply with a fleshed out example of something I learned in that class that I use in game design, similar to the examples above. Don't be shy, it'll be fun!


I could go on and on all day with examples, but I think these are enough to get the gist. At the time, the things I learned in college were just to satiate my slightly maddening state of curiosity about the world and everything. But, several years after graduating and working in the world, when I began my graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, it all started coming back in useful, practical forms. Now, as a grown-up game designer, I still frequently nod back to undergrad for skills I learned, habits I formed, or simply knowledge that comes in handy.

Remember, I am not trying to say "if you want to be a game designer you have to go to a liberal arts school!" My point is merely to expose it as a viable option for an education path for aspiring designers, in case you discover the style of a liberal arts school is a better fit for you than a games-specific program or a technical pursuit or whathaveyou.

Further Reading

Once again, education is personal and varied, and I would encourage any students aspiring to be game developers to do a thorough search to find what path is right for you. Here are some other different and relevant articles on education to check out at #AltDevBlogADay:
[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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