Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Philosophy of Teaching Game Art

Students playing "Undertakers" at Columbia College's Manifest 2013

For the last two years I've worked in Chicago as an adjunct professor, teaching college students various aspects of game art production. Recently I was asked to write up my teaching philosophy, and since it's actually an art process I felt it appropriate to post here.

My teaching philosophy is rooted in the practical realities of working in the games industry for over two decades. Throughout the process of making games, interviewing and hiring hundreds of artists, building art teams, and surviving the churn & rapid change in the industry, I've developed what I would call a realist philosophy.

For those art students seeking to work for a major game developer or publisher, competition for jobs is at an all-time high. Only the most dedicated individuals with rich portfolios demonstrating a balance between strong art fundamentals and advanced technical skills are being considered by the top studios.

If students wish to pursue the rapidly growing sector of Indie game development, here again only the most creative, prolific, and differentiated individuals will find it possible to sustain a career.

It is for these reasons that I see my goal as closing the gap between expectations and the reality of what students can expect after they graduate. Learning needs to be role-focused, so the skills obtained directly relate to work they will do as professionals. Following is a list of the techniques I apply toward these goals.

1)      Integrate art fundamentals at every step of technical instruction – Creating art in a software package is different from creating a visual aesthetic. Without a solid grounding in visual theory (contrast & affinity, space, line & shape, tone, color, etc.) many students do not attain the ability to precisely control their work to achieve a specific outcome. These skills need to be reinforced and applied at every stage of their work.

2)      Create a culture of feedback & critique – This is done both in the instructor/student level as well as the classroom community. Critique helps students prepare for professional environments where taking direction is required function of the job. Helping students detach ego from their work is part of this, and will result in a stronger portfolio and the knowledge of how to critique others in a positive manner.

3)      Provide a platform for experiential learning – There is undoubtedly a large amount of information that must be imparted to students learning technical skills. To this end lecture is often unavoidable. However wherever possible I believe it’s better for students to gain experience in the process of setting their own goals within time constraints, delivering results, and allowing them to repeat this loop as often as possible. Quite simply this is what they’ll be doing continually in their professional lives.

4)      Focus on building a robust portfolio – Whenever practical, every visual project undertaken in a class should produce portfolio-worthy work. I try to let students make the work uniquely theirs to elevate their attachment & investment. In a four year program, students ideally should finish with dozens of diverse & compelling work examples, curated from hundreds of attempted pieces. I impress this metric on every student I meet.

5)      Teach the importance of building community – Nearly equal to visual & technical skills is the ability to effectively communicate and work in a cross-discipline team setting. The best artists in the world still need to collaborate and interact to be successful, both in local and the global communities. I relate my experiences (both successes and mistakes), show students what professional branding is, and demonstrate why building strong industry connections is crucial to their future.

The professional games industry is an exceptionally challenging, often difficult place to establish and maintain a career. Statistics have shown that the average length of a game developer’s career is around 5-7 years before they burn out.

My goal is to give students the tools, resources, and skills they need to avoid the pitfalls, and give them the foresight to know what’s ahead so they can be successful & happy professionals. I believe the return on their educational investment is of paramount importance.

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