Saturday, May 19, 2012

Parsons post-mortem: "Games and..."

Parsons is a bit of a secret games school: they don't advertise much, and the students / faculty rarely shill for the program. (I'm an exception, I guess.)

I enjoyed my time here, but it's not for everyone. I find most prospective students are trying to decide between Parsons / NYU / USC or something, so this post is mostly tailored to them. (There's also a tl;dr at the bottom.)

Here are, what I think, the strengths of studying games at MFA Design and Technology at Parsons:
  • Diversity. A Model UN's worth of international students. About 40-50% of the students / faculty are women. Also, there's a healthy LGBT presence and culture, e.g. some of our bathrooms are branded "gender-inclusive", and ~10% of our cohort was LGBT. Some students are 36 year old engineers; some are 24 year old dancers and biologists. Altogether, this makeup is VERY rare in the monoculture that is the technology / games field.
  • Breadth. You will go to gallery openings and interact with the larger New York City art scene. You will learn soldering, coding, and typography. You'll get a general sense of where the "new media" art scene is at, to the point where you can go to a MoMA exhibition and yawn at their curation with knowing confidence.
  • Flexibility. If you realize you're not into games so much, you can totally do something else without any disruption toward your degree. Start welding something! Sew a dress! Make a video performance! Grow algae batteries! Build robots! Just start doing it and you can.
  • Maturity. MFADT is a very old program (15+ years old?) compared to most dedicated games programs. The veteran faculty know what they're doing. The courses and curriculum generally work.
  • New York City isn't AAA! The NYC indie scene is among the strongest in the world, with frequent meet-ups and events. Killscreen and Babycastles regularly partner with museums to do stuff, and there's always at least one games-related thing going on every weekend.
Now, as for the gaps in the program, I actually regard them as strengths, but I understand people see things differently -- so here are the "weaknesses"...
  • No in-depth systems science. If you're interested in games as mathematical systems, in Excel spreadsheets and game balance as science, in Chun-Li's input curves and animation frames -- there's not much focus on that here unless you really seek out some one-on-one with faculty Nick Fortugno.
  • No structured game curriculum. In terms of courses, we have Game Design 1 and sometimes a Game Design 2 or 3, accompanied by 2 or 3 game-related electives each semester. That's it. I ended up taking classes outside of my department -- in lighting design and architecture -- which I loved and don't regret at all. Others might find this freedom to be frustrating.
  • De-emphasis on technique. Don't enroll ANYWHERE just to learn how to code or model, buy a book or DVD instead. Here, it's more about learning how to think, how to present, and how to take feedback. You definitely won't learn much about polish, as you're expected to know how to do that already, and most Parsons students are already practicing professionals in their field.
  • De-emphasis on monetization. Here, you're encouraged to think in terms of nonprofit / social change, and our own university even encouraged us to walk-out in the early days of Occupy. That just reflects the parent university's progressive / neo-Marxist roots. There's some support for students who dig microtransactions / gamification / entrepreneurship, so you won't be completely abandoned, but honestly NYU or USC would probably better serve your needs with its business school / emphasis on start-up culture.
  • We're not an engineering school. You usually can't just "make something cool" -- you have to have a compelling concept and rationale behind it too. We're also relatively poor compared to games programs housed under computer science departments, we don't have a white-tiled clean lab outfitted with a dozen Kinects.
  • New York City isn't AAA! There is very little AAA industry in NYC; it's mostly tech start-ups and mobile. If you want to make Halo 7, networking won't really help you as much here. There's a bunch of AAA in Boston (Irrational, Harmonix) and Maryland (Bethesda) though.
In her book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anna Anthropy takes a big ol' shit on trade schools like Guildhall and talks about how it nearly destroyed her, then she condemns the entire academic study of games -- I think she had poor luck with academia, and probably would've thrived at Parsons because it's essentially the anti-Guildhall here -- but I guess we'll never know.

If you're interested in attending Parsons for games, feel free to e-mail me or something, and I'll answer questions more candidly. Consider the culture at all the different major research universities that support games (namely Parsons, USC, UCLA, NYU, and MIT), shop around / visit, and decide what'll be the best fit for you. Or if you have a different goal, then go to a trade school like Digipen, Guildhall, or SCAD.

Parsons is about "games and _____"... if you want to fill in that blank, as other Parsons students have ("perception""responsibility", "lying", "immigration", "dentistry", "music", "religion in Lebanon", "children", "architecture"), then you'll like it here. If you don't want to, or if you think the presence of that blank is gratuitous, then you might resent all the "distractions" that an art / design program with a social conscience seems to impose on you.