Parsons New School for Design is considered one of the leading art schools in the US. The school offers an MFA in Design and Technology—a rigorous program in which students explore the design implications of emerging technologies and the evolving connections between technology, design, and the human experience. Within the MFA, students are able to focus on a variety of subject matters, including—but not limited to—video game design. The school is located in New York City. Dustin “Dex” Smither is a student at Parsons, and he’s sharing with us his thoughts on the school’s Digital Design and Technology MFA program.
What school do you currently attend, and what is your specific field of study?
I currently attend Parsons the New School of Design in their Digital Design and Technology MFA program. My focus has been in video game design, 3D modeling, and behavioral animation coding.
How long is the program, and what are the requirements to get accepted?
The program is two years. There is a pre-program “bootcamp” in the summer to give students equal footing in HTML, Flash, and basic design principles. To enter the program you must have a TOEFL score of 580 if you are an ESL student, and you must send in a copy of your portfolio, professional resume, two letters of recommendation, and a statement of purpose. For my portfolio, I entered two short films I had written and produced.
How much does the program cost, and what options exist for financing?
As of right now, a semester in Parsons costs $14,645. I know there are scholarships opportunities, though I’m not certain of the specifics. For my own financing I use Federal Stafford loans and cover the rest through a private student loan.
Ultimately, what sort of job do you want when you finish with the program?
I would like to be part of a game design team, but I have also had fun in 3D modeling and would not mind building and animating game assets.
What is the size of your department? Do you feel that you are getting enough meaningful contact with your professors?
Many of the elective classes are open to both BFA and MFA students, so I’m not exactly sure nor could I guess at an accurate number. I do get an almost daily interaction with several professors not only during class, but throughout the summer as well. Many of the professors will take students under their wing if they feel that specific student will work hard in their arena. This has allowed me many opportunities outside of classes to gain professional experience as well as join in once-in-a-lifetime design teams. Through the interaction with my professors in the last year alone I have been able to work at gameLab, program a development kit for Parsons 24 hour Game Mosh, and help design a game for Nokia’s International Game Conference.
What is your opinion of the faculty in your program? Do you have faith in their industry experience and knowledge? Do you have any particular favorite professors?
Almost all of the professors I have worked with have had established careers and/or published in their specific field of study. One instructor, Anezka Sebek, has over 25 years in the entertainment industry and keeps in touch with her professional connections. I recall a conversation with her once about creating polygons coded by hand for simple 3D models, and she commiserated how she had to do the same when she made special effects for major motion pictures before Maya and Max came out. Katie Salen, the head of the department, is consistently referenced in professional journals and books regarding game design. All of my design critiques have been adjudicated by top industry professionals. There can be no better set of connections.
What are the school’s facilities like? Do you feel that the equipment is up to date, and do you think that there is enough of it for the entire student body?
Everything that I have ever asked for regarding software and hardware has been provided for by the school. They are constantly gathering top-of-the-line programs and components. When it gets to the end of the semester and projects are due, it becomes more difficult to get to a computer, but we do have the advantage of having our own computer lab separate from the rest of the school so we only have to compete with fellow digital design students.
What is the focus of your education? How do you feel about the balance between the practical/technical skills you’re learning, and more theory-based aspects of game development?
The focus of the education is limited only by the term “digital design”. After that caveat, all realms are equal in the eyes of the school. That allows freedom for the student to explore various interests and fields, even combine vastly different aspects. Every semester is balanced by having students take an Academic course which is mostly theory, a Studio course which explores design process and applying theory, and then Electives which increase a student’s arsenal of programming and specific applications. Routinely work from one class easily flows into work from another, which makes for a more enriching educational experience.
Do you feel confident that you’ll be able to get a job when you graduate? What sort of post-graduate services does your institution provide?
I am certain I will have a job after graduation. The only question is what job and where. There are so many opportunities in the game market right now a qualified person could end up anywhere in U.S., Canada, or Europe. It just depends on what your focus is, where your talents lie, and having a combination of advanced degree and professional experience. Through Parsons I have achieved both within a year.
Do you feel that you have a leg up on prospective game developers who started in the “trenches?” Why did you choose to take this route, rather than trying to get your foot in the door as, say, a tester?
I feel that I have had a more formalized upbringing which would allow me to cover more areas of the game design process, including visuals, gameplay, and coding. It would be tough to compare to a 20 year veteran in the field, but compared to others that are earning their stripes through the “trenches” as a tester, I would most certainly have an advantage. As the gaming industry grows and becomes more formalized, it will behave similar to other jobs. Would you rather enter a corporation from the mail-room or as a designer? You have about an equal chance of one day running the company, but in the meantime I would rather start my career with a solid lead.