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Frequently Asked Questions

The Bachelor of Science in Computer Science: Computer Game Design is an undergraduate degree program focused on the construction and design of interactive computer games. Reflecting both the growing cultural and economic importance of the computer gaming industry within California and the increasing complexity and specialization of computer gaming systems, the program focuses on the technical, narrative, and artistic underpinnings of these games. The degree features a freshman year game design experience, a sophomore year game programming course, two upper-division digital media electives, and an intensive senior-year game design studio where students work in teams to develop a substantial video game. This four-year interdisciplinary degree program provides a rigorous education in computer science, in concert with a broad introduction to those aspects of art, music, narrative, digital media, and computer engineering most relevant to games. Campus general education requirements ensure that students are exposed to a wide range of topics in the humanities, social sciences, and the arts.

Students wishing to matriculate in this degree program should apply for admission to UC Santa Cruz and the degree program for studies commencing either Freshman year, or Junior year (for transfer students from California community colleges). For additional information on the degree program, contact the School of Engineering Undergraduate Student Affairs Office.

What is the goal of the BS degree program?

The goal of the BS in Computer Science: Computer Game Design is to provide a deep understanding of the technical aspects of computer game engineering, and a broad background in the artistic, narrative, and dramatic elements of game design.

What other game design curriculum offerings exist in the University of California system?

UC Santa Cruz was the first game degree program within the UC system, starting in Fall 2006.

The only other formal program in the UC system is at UC Irvine, which offers the Computer Game Science major within the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Science. Most UC campuses have individual courses with game-related content, but no formal degree programs. Of the campuses without game degrees, UC Davis has the most game courses and faculty.

What offerings are there at other four-year schools in the San Francisco Bay Area?

Limited. Stanford, San Jose State University, San Francisco State University, University of San Francisco, and UC Berkeley all have 1-2 courses with some game related content. None of these schools have a four-year game design curriculum. Cogswell College offers a degree in Game Design and Development, with specializations in game art and game engineering.

What kinds of computer game degree programs exist in the United States?

Undergraduate computer game degree programs tend to fall into one of three categories:

Art Focused

These programs emphasize the artistic and graphic design aspects of computer games, with only a small number of programming courses. Their goal is to train students to join the art track of a computer game company.

Evenly Split Between Art and Technology

Programs have strong computer science foundations, but do not go into computer science topics with the same depth as technology focused programs. Instead, they offer a broader mix of courses on game design topics.

Technology Focused

Programs are strong computer science degrees, with additional courses adding depth in computer game design. These programs aim to train students for the technical track in computer game companies. As compared to the other kinds of programs, the technically focused programs provide greater depth in computer science topics.

What kind of game degree program is the UCSC BS program?

The BS Computer Science: Computer Game Design degree program is technology focused, as it has a strong core of computer science, to which are added courses on game design and digital media. Students in the this program receive a deep and theoretical foundation in computer science, as well as the opportunity to take many courses that stress aspects of computer systems, such as databases, operating systems, networking and distributed systems, security, etc. UCSC has deep course sequences in computer graphics (4 courses available) and artificial intelligence (4 courses available). Advanced undergraduate students occasionally take advantage of the rich selection of graduate level courses.

There are ongoing efforts at UC Santa Cruz to create a design-focused degree program, the Bachelor of Arts in Games and Playable Media. Still in the proposal stage, and not yet approved, it is hoped that this degree program will start in Fall 2015. This program will be hosted by the Department of Art at UCSC.

What lab facilities support the program?

The School of Engineering hosts the undergraduate Game Design Studio, which contains high-end computer game development workstations with high performance graphics cards, with dual displays per workstation. A game playing station features the latest game consoles (Xbox One, Playstation 4, Wii U) and a large library containing recent games of design significance. The studio also holds a large library of books about game technology, design and art, along with graphic design, programming languages, and other topics of interest to game designers. These are complemented by a large collection of non-digital board and card games. The studio contains a state-of-the-art lighting system that can be configured for group collaboration, or individual programming work. The studio provides students with a dedicated space to work in teams to construct advanced computer games.

What kind of research is being performed on computer games at UC Santa Cruz?

In 2006 UC Santa Cruz hired Michael Mateas to join the Computer Science Department. Mateas’ research focuses on the artificial intelligence aspects of computer games, specifically how to make non-player characters more interactive and expressive. This research holds the promise of improving the interactivity of stories within computer games, and of making the computer controlled characters much more interesting, and adaptive. As the benefits of improved graphics capabilities plateau, improved AI will be the avenue for enhanced gameplay. Mateas’ game Façade (free download at won the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Independent Games Festival in 2006, and has been featured in the New York Times, Economist, and Newsweek.

In 2008, Noah Wardrip-Fruin joined the Computer Science faculty. Prof. Wardrip-Fruin is the editor of three widely read collections of essays, New Media Reader, First Person, and Second Person (all MIT Press). Two new volumes are expected later in 2009, Third Person, and Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies.

Professor Jim Whitehead led the development of the Computer Game Design major, and in 2009 was the general chair of the Foundations of Digital Games research conference. He performs research on automatic generation of levels for 2D platform games. Arnav Jhala is a Professor at UC Santa Cruz with research interests in artificial intelligence techniques for automatic camera placement in 3D scenes.

A hallmark of a University of California education is that advanced undergraduate students have the opportunity to participate in research projects.

What opportunities exist for students to create games?

The highlight of the degree program is the year-long, three course Game Design Studio sequence in the Senior year. Every student in the major takes this sequence. In it, students work in teams to create a substantial video game. This acts as the capstone experience for the degree, and allows students to integrate the knowledge they have acquired in their prior coursework, as well as to engage in project-based learning.

In addition to the Senior year studio sequence, the Foundations of Interactive Game Design course allows students to create games in their Freshman year using a game making tool such as Game Maker. In their Sophomore year, the Game Design Experience course provides an introduction to game programming, and has a term project of writing a computer game using the Javascript language.

Additionally, many courses in the degree program have class projects with a computer gaming focus.

What kinds of career opportunities are there for graduates?

Graduates will be well positioned to secure jobs within the computer games industry, as well as general software engineering jobs within a broad array of information technology companies. Students in the program will receive a solid and broad background in computer science, and hence are also well positioned to continue on to graduate studies in computer science, digital media, or computer games. Since the degree explicitly has the name “Computer Science” in its title, students who decide to pursue traditional software engineering jobs after completing their degree will be at no disadvantage compared to those completing traditional computer science degree programs. In fact, many employers view the major capstone project as a significant plus factor.

In the Gamasutra Salary Survey 2014, the average nationwide salary for game programmers and engineers with less than three years experience is $71,855, with salaries in the San Francisco Bay Area generally being higher than the average. Additionally, average additional compensation (bonus, profit sharing, stock options) was $16,534 for the 77% of developers that received it. There is a large and growing computer gaming industry nationwide, with many companies concentrated in California (Electronic Arts, Sony Computer Entertainment America, Activision/Blizzard, Zynga), offering strong wages. Many UCSC graduates are currently employed in the computer games industry.

Can students from California community colleges enter this program?

Yes. The program has been designed so that a student entering in their Junior year after spending their first two years in a community college can still realistically graduate in two years, if they have completed the equivalent of two years at UCSC.

What high school preparation is ideal for this degree program?

In addition to satisfying the normal UC admission requirements, we recommend that students have some background in computer programming in an object-oriented language (C++, Java, C#). Some game design experience is a plus, but not required. While a background in computer programming is a plus, note that students with no programming experience can still successfully complete the degree program, and there are pathways designed specifically for such students.

What kind of library facilities support the degree program?

Students need to have access to examples of excellent game design in order to develop their critical skills as game designers. Just as English Literature students read and critically analyze novels and other texts, Computer Game Design students play and critically analyze computer games. The Science and Engineering Library at UCSC has a 700+ title collection of video games and game consoles to support the needs of students taking game design courses. This collection spans a range of game genres, but has particular depth in computer role playing games (RPGs), platformers, and 2D space shooters (STG, or Shmup). Students can check out current and classic game consoles such as NES, SNES, N64, PS2, and Atari Flashback. Additionally, the library has a computer game room, where students can play games in the library on a variety of critically significant game consoles. This room is carefully isolated from the rest of the library, so students analyzing games will not disturb other students performing quiet study.

Is this a frivolous degree program, a kind of "zapping for credits?"

No. This is a rigorous, technically focused degree program requiring students to complete demanding courses in math and computer science. We view this degree as “Computer Science++” where students receive a strong education in computer science, and additionally learn aspects of digital media, and engage in a team-based senior year project. Students with poor time management skills who focus on playing games to the exclusion of their coursework will do poorly in the degree program. Playing and critically analyzing computer games is an important, but by no means exclusive activity for an aspiring game designer. UC Santa Cruz is seeking serious students with a passion for computer game design who wish to create innovative, leading edge games.

Does UC Santa Cruz have a minor in game design?

No. While this is a good idea, there are no current efforts underway to create a computer game design minor.

Does UC Santa Cruz offer a graduate degree in game design?

There are three degree paths available for graduate students interested in games at UC Santa Cruz: the professional M.S. in Games and Playable Media, the Ph.D. or M.S. in Computational Media, and the Master of Fine Arts in Digital Arts and New Media (DANM). UC Santa Cruz's graduate game programs were ranked in the top 10 in both 2011, 2012, and 2013 survey by the Princeton Review.

The Master of Science degree in Games and Playable Media is a year-long (12 month) program offered at the UCSC Silicon Valley campus. It is focused on combining technical and design innovation to create novel possibilities for the games of today, to enable new types of games, and to explore a wide variety of indie and next-generation playable experiences. The degree admits students who have a background in computer science and knowledge of games. Target students include industry professionals seeking new knowledge (e.g., advanced AI techniques) and/or wanting to experience new roles (e.g., engineers seeking a move into design) as well as talented recent undergraduates who have completed technically-focused game degrees. The program includes: making innovative games, dedicated placement and professional development, deep technical electives (including those offered at the Santa Cruz campus), media creation foundations, and significant interactions with the industry and indie game communities of Silicon Valley and the larger San Francisco Bay Area.

Students earning a Ph.D. in Computational Media combine computer science knowledge with coursework in Artificial Intelligence in Games, Computer Animation, Playable Media and Interactive Narrative. Graduate-level game courses at UC Santa Cruz are largely taught by tenure-track faculty whose primary research area is games, which is important since research is an essential part of a graduate student's work. To graduate with a Ph.D., each student is required to conduct a body of research culminating in the writing of a doctoral dissertation. The Ph.D. program generally takes five years, while the M.S. generally takes two.

The Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) M.F.A. Program focuses on the development and study of digital media and the cultures that they have helped create. Faculty and students come from a variety of backgrounds — the arts, computer engineering, humanities, the sciences, and social sciences — to pursue interdisciplinary artistic and scholarly research and production while broadly examining digital arts and cultures. The M.F.A. Program is a two-year program organized into four interdependent and equally important pursuits: critique and practicum, core seminars, collaborative research, and pedagogy. Playable Media is the DANM research area with the most active work in games.

More information: Games and Playable Media (GPM) M.S.

More information: Computational Media: M.S. and Ph.D. 

More information: Digital Arts and New Media (DANM): Program Description

Who can I contact for more information about the degree program?

The School of Engineering Undergraduate Student Affairs Office can answer questions about the undergraduate degree program, including detailed degree requirements.

The School of Engineering Graduate Advising Office can answer questions regarding the MS in Games and Playable Media and the MS and PhD in Computer Science programs.

Digital Arts & New Media MFA -, (831) 459-1919