The Cruel Tutelage of the NYU Game Center


Wow. Phew.
I haven’t had a chance to write anything here, or do much of anything else, since I started my first semester of the masters program at the NYU Game Center. It’s basically been 15 weeks of punching a board until you know game design. Maybe I’m doing it wrong.

I wanted to get some thoughts down about the experience now that I’ve had a moment to breathe, and try and unpack what it’s been like so far. It’s an amazing program that I feel ridiculously privileged to be a part of, and I can’t believe there’s still three semesters left to go. So, what’s it like in games school?

The first thing I wanted to note is that it is crushingly difficult. I was repeatedly warned that this was the case, but from a combination of hubris and ignorance didn’t really believe it. The past semester has been probably the most challenging experience I’ve ever had. While I’ve been told it’s “not as hard as a masters in architecture”, I found it to be very difficult. I think everyone in the program does, or if they don’t, they’re at least polite enough to pretend they do.

The difficulty primarily stems from the quantity and differentiation of the workload. In my undergrad, I used to joke that I double majored in History; essentially all the classes I took differed only in content and not at all in form. Here though you’re using many unrelated skills simultaneously. Each week you’re writing critical design essays, studying and being tested on games history, writing summaries of readings in games studies, working on academic research, programming a digital game, and working in a group on designing an analog game (which itself entails a multitude of skills). Any of one of these would be enjoyably challenging on their own. Juggling that many things at the same time requires intense coordination though, and it can be very stressful. Like in Darkest Dungeon, it becomes a game of managing that stress and finding the best worst option since there isn’t time to do everything. So the Game Center is a roguelike, is basically what I’m saying.

It is a good sort of stress though. Perhaps the main reason the program is so difficult is because everyone is trying their absolute hardest. Unlike work or school where at least some of the tasks are perfunctory, everyone has chosen to be here. Competed to be here, really. So the level of effort and dedication is the kind that can only come from love and passion. Which leads to the second thing I’d note, which is about the people in the program. It’s as varied a group as one could hope for, and speaks to the strange omni-cultural power that games have. There’s something exhilarating about being part of a community that includes artists, musicians, programmers, lawyers, architects, writers, nuclear submariners, and one humble former analyst. It’s also intimidating as hell, but there’s nothing quite like being around so many talented people with whom you have a shared love. You also get to work together, which while all manner of stressful on its own, produces amazing work that no one could ever manage on their own.

The last thing to note is that designing games is really hard. Like, fantastically hard. A sort of thing you could devote your life to and never really get good at, that kind of hard. As a result, much of the program isn’t really about designing games, not really anyway. There’s a focus on learning by doing, sure, but also an emphasis on cultivating something akin to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. An appreciation for games and their design beyond mere enjoyment; a practiced and studied love of the form. It reminds me of when I wrote for the Punch Bowl, UPenn’s oldest and least reputable humor magazine, during my undergrad. We thought a lot quite seriously about the craft of humor writing (though you wouldn’t think that from reading our stuff, heyoo!), like about what makes a joke well crafted, and what a truly funny joke really is. Of course, that experience basically ruined most expressions of humor for me. You become so familiar with the cadences and tropes of jokes that you see them coming from miles away. And that’s a bit what it’s been like studying games as well. Honing a critical lens and appreciation of the art, and as a consequence ruining it for yourself most of the time. I find myself howling at some things I play now, because you start see every thing they do wrong. Occasionally, if you’re super smart, sometimes you even see what they do right too. But I think that’s just the paradox of dedication though, like I’d wager that magicians are seldom amazed by magic tricks.

So that’s a a little glimpse at any rate. I’m also putting together a list of all the games I’ve made last semester, which’ll hopefully be the more interesting show to this post’s tell. Stay tuned!

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