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Bradley University's game design program continues to stand out, ranking 9th in the world

Game Design
Bradley University Website
A student is shown using a virtual reality headset.

In 2021, Bradley University’s game design program ranked 9th in the world as one of the best schools to study game design, according to the Princeton Review. It also was crowned as the highest ranked game design program in Illinois.

Receiving this much attention on a national scale for the past seven years has led the program to skyrocket in popularity compared to when it was first introduced on campus in 2000 as a multimedia program under the Slane College of Communications and Fine Arts. In 2009, it became its own Interactive Media department.

Two years later, the game design concentration was introduced, and by 2015 the game design concentration became its own major, with the addition of a few other majors related to designing games. As of now, the game design major has about 150 students in the program, and another 40 students are enrolled in the game art major, which is only two years old.

Ethan Ham is a professor of game design at Bradley University, as well as the department chair for Interactive Media. He said a lot of people get confused on what game design entails.

“It isn't game art. We have a major in game art…but in the game industry, what game design really means is coming up with the rules to the game, the world of the game, the story of the game,” explained Ham.

Ethan Ham
Jody Holtz
Ethan Ham, professor of game design and department chair of Interactive Media at Bradley University

Ham said the game design curriculum at Bradley goes even further than that. All students also learn how to program games, as well as become familiar with augmented and virtual reality because that tends to be what lands them a job after college. This becomes incredibly valuable because, according to Ham, landing a job in game design is no easy feat.

“It’s hard, and that’s one thing I always want our students to know because I want them to have the grit to keep pushing and getting it, but our students do pretty well,” Ham said.

In 2021, 97% of game design students either went on to graduate school to continue studying games, or got a job that they reported to be satisfied with. Contrary to what many may think, a game design degree doesn’t only qualify you to design video games. In fact, the skills that game design majors acquire over the course of four years can be incredibly valuable in all sorts of settings that use game development technologies, like in hospitals such as OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

“They have a Jump Simulation center. They do education, medical education, medical training, and they use game development platforms to do that, so our students tend to intern there. They get jobs there,” said Ham.

And as previous students know, landing a job after college is typically what many undergraduates are striving for once graduation hits. However, for those interested in continuing their education and expanding their portfolio, Bradley recently launched a one year game design master program. The program started last summer, and had about fivestudents enrolled.

“It mimics having a small game startup. So, the students have their own offices…a suite for their company, and they spend a full year, 12 months, 40 hours a week like it’s a job, making a game. They’ve been being mentored by the game company Volition and that’s been great for them and they’re doing really good work,” said Ham.

Whatever course a former game design student chooses to take after graduation, they all part of a nationally ranked program that distinguishes them from the sea of other applicants looking to get a foot in the door of some big game companies. Ham said the program at Bradley is designed in a way to set students up for success, and provide them with hands-on experience in designing games.

“As you go through the program, you work on bigger and bigger teams until your senior year you’re working on a team of at least 20 students, and what that allows our students to do is become more and more specialized, and go deeper and deeper in one area that they’re interested in…and I think that specialization allows them to focus on the cutting edge of what’s happening today,” said Ham.

Being able to adapt to the technological advances of an ever-changing world is crucial in this industry, especially in 2022. With more content and games than ever before, the competition is stiff, and having extensive experience and knowledge is a necessity. This is why Bradley requires its students to work on games all four years of the program, distinguishing it from some other programs throughout the nation.

“We want our students to have four years of experience. The other thing we really try to do is…start them out with a broad foundation. We want them to have experience with all aspects of games, so they make a game by themselves. They have to do it all, and then as they go through the program, the teams they’re working on get larger,” Ham said.

This sort of structure leads to some really incredible games. Ham said his current favorite is one his seniors are currently working on called "Disaster Golf." In this game, you’re playing golf with the addition of things like explosions and Venus fly traps. The students involved are being mentored by the game company, Rockstar Games that is behind the beloved Grand Theft Auto.

“It’s a lot of fun. The folks at Rockstar Games say I’m ready to buy this. I want to play it more. So, it’s been getting really good feedback,” said Ham.

With a potential new hit game in the works, it’s no wonder the game design program has held onto its top ranking these past few years.

For those who are interested in playing "Disaster Golf" and seeing what it’s all about for themselves, the Bradley game design students will be at the Peoria Riverfront Museum on April 30, which is a free admission day, and will be offering free chances to play all the games they have worked on this past semester. You also can download the link to "Disaster Golf" here.

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.