Frequently Asked Questions

Table of Contents
  1. What is the goal of the degree program?
  2. What other game design curriculum offerings exist in the University of California system?
  3. What offerings are there at other four-year schools in the San Francisco Bay Area?
  4. What kinds of computer game degree programs exist in the United States?
    1. Art Focused
    2. Evenly Split Between Art and Technology
    3. Technology Focused
  5. What kind of game degree program is the UCSC program?
  6. What lab facilities support the program?
  7. What kind of research is being performed on computer games at UC Santa Cruz?
  8. What opportunities exist for students to create games?
  9. What kinds of career opportunities are there for graduates?
  10. Can students from California community colleges enter this program?
  11. What high school preparation is ideal for this degree program?
  12. What kind of library facilities support the degree program?
  13. Is this a frivolous degree program, a kind of "zapping for credits?"
  14. Does UC Santa Cruz have a minor in game design?
  15. Does UC Santa Cruz offer a graduate degree in game design?
  16. Who can I contact for more information about the degree program?

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,, (831) 459-5840.

What is the goal of the 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.

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

At present, UC Santa Cruz and UC Irvine have the only full game design majors in the UC system. UC Santa Cruz’s program, started in 2006, was the first UC campus to have a formal degree program.

Most UC campuses have individual courses with game-related content, but no formal degree programs.

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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 courses with some game related content. None of these schools have a four-year game design curriculum.

Cogswell Polytechnical College has a game development concentration in its Digital Art and Animation BA degree and its Digital Arts Engineering BS degree.

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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.

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What kind of game degree program is the UC Santa Cruz program?

UC Santa Cruz’s 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 UC Santa Cruz 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. UC Santa Cruz has deep course sequences in computer graphics and artificial intelligence.

Advanced undergraduate students occasionally take advantage of the rich selection of graduate-level courses.

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What lab facilities support the program?

The School of Engineering hosts the undergraduate Game Design Studio, which contains 11 high-end computer game development workstations with high performance graphics cards (Dell XPS, X6800 quad-core, GeForce 8800GTX, 4GB RAM), with dual 24-inch displays per workstation. There are also 4 Mac mini stations. A game playing station features the latest game consoles (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii), a large 1080p flat panel display, and recent games of design significance. Playstation Portable and Playstation 3 development kits are available,. 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.

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

At the heart of UC Santa Cruz's game design program is a commitment not just to creating games, but to creating the future of games through research and innovation. The program has a core of tenure-track gaming faculty involved in active research in areas ranging from artificial intelligence and interactive storytelling to natural language dialogue systems, cinematic communication, procedural content generation, human computer interaction, rehabilitation games, computational photography and level design.

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. Wardrip-Fruin’s co-edited books First Person, Second Person, and Third Person (MIT Press) are influential collections of essays on game studies. His book The New Media Reader, co-edited with Nick Montfort, is widely used as a textbook for introductory digital media classes worldwide. According to prominent game designer Will Wright, Wardrip-Fruin’s most recent book, Expressive Processing (2009), provides a “critical language and framework for understanding interactive media.” His collaborative playable media projects, including Screen and Talking Cure, have been presented by the Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, New Museum of Contemporary Art, Krannert Art Museum, Hammer Museum, and a wide variety of festivals and conferences. His research focuses on new models of storytelling in games, how games express ideas through play, and how games can help broaden understanding of the power of computation.

Associate Professor Jim Whitehead led the development of the Computer Game Design major. He is the founder and board chair of the Society for the Advancement of the Science of Digital Games, which hosts the yearly Foundations of Digital Games conference. As founder of the Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV) Working Group, a broad coalition of industry and academia, he helped develop the WebDAV Distributed Authoring Protocol, extensions to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) that support remote collaborative authoring. Note: Sony's Playstation network runs on WebDAV. Whitehead’s research interests in the area of games include level design and procedural content generation. In the field of software engineering, he also performs research on software bug prediction, software repository mining, and software evolution.

Professor Marilyn Walker is internationally known for her work in natural language processing applied to interactive media. A focus of her work involves dialog generation for game characters. . From 1996 to 2003, she was a Principal Member of Research Staff in the Speech and Information Processing Lab at AT&T Bell Labs and AT&T Research. While at AT&T, she worked on the AT&T Communicator project, where she developed a new architecture for spoken dialogue systems and statistical methods for dialogue management and generation. Her current research includes work on extending the language capabilities of interactive games, with a focus on training, assistive, and educational games. Statistical and expressive natural language generation, dialogue systems, artificial intelligence, computer games, and human computer interaction are also among her research interests.

Assistant Professor Arnav Jhala joined UC Santa Cruz in 2009. His research interests lie at the intersection of artificial intelligence and digital media, particularly in the areas of computer games, cinematic communication, and narrative discourse. Jhala has developed computational models of film idioms and algorithms for automatically generating cinematic discourse.

Computer Science Professor Charlie McDowell and Hierarchical Systems Research Foundation’s David Doshay have developed SlugGo, one of the world’s top computer Go playing programs. Film and Digital Media Assistant Professor Warren Sack developed a language game called Agonistics, where gameplay involves posted arguments and counter-arguments on an email list. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor Barry Sinervo’s game LizardLand allows students to explore the interactions among different types of lizards, whose natural behaviors form a kind of rock-paper-scissors game. A hallmark of a University of California education is that advanced undergraduate students have the opportunity to participate in research projects.

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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 C# language and the XNA toolkit. Additionally, many courses in the degree program have class projects with a computer gaming focus.

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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, we anticipate that completing a major capstone project may well be viewed as a significant plus factor when seeking jobs or postgraduate study.

In the Fall 2008 Career Guide published by Game Developer Magazine, the average nationwide salary for game developers with less than three years experience is $57,665, with salaries in the San Francisco Bay Area generally being higher than the average. Additionally, average additional compensation (bonus, profit sharing, stock options) was $15,313 for the 78% 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, THQ, Sony Online Entertainment, LucasArts), offering strong wages.

Graduates of the Game Design major have been employed at Zynga, Electronic Arts, Sony Computer Entertainment America, OnLive and more.

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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 UC Santa Cruz. Students interested in starting first at a community college might consider Foothill College, which has an Associate’s degree in Video and Computer Game Design. The De Anza College animation program is also a good background for the UC Santa Cruz degree program, but would require additional coursework prior to transfer.

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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.

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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 UC Santa Cruz has a 630+ 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 games consoles, including the current-generation PS3, XBox 360, and Wii, along with classic consoles 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.

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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.

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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.

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

Students interested in advanced study in computer game design may want to pursue a MS or PhD in Computer Science, and target their research project on aspects of game design. When applying, students have the opportunity to indicate that they have research interests in computer games. Additionally, students might want to consider the Digital Arts New Media (DANM) program, where students create digital arts projects as part of their MFA degree requirements. These art projects can draw heavily upon computer game traditions, especially in the Playable Media project group.

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

The School of Engineering Undergraduate Student Affairs Office,, (831) 459-5840, can answer questions about the degree program, including detailed degree requirements.

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