UW-Madison Game Design Certificate Focuses on Creating Positive

Video game controllers, dice, scrabble-like tiles

By Elea Levin

Have you played a game on your phone today? Maybe you participated in a rec or club sports game over the weekend? Did you have a Monopoly night with your roommates last week? If so, you are not alone! Almost 100% of undergraduate students have played a game today – and you now have the option to turn that interest into part of your undergraduate studies or a career.

The Game Design Certificate, an interdisciplinary program offered jointly by the departments of Curriculum and Instruction, Art, and Computer Sciences, is now in its third year. Students who are passionate about gaming can use this certificate to change this form of entertainment into a career or to complement their current areas of study.

Krista-Lee Malone

We hope that students will learn to approach game design from a more critical standpoint,” says Krista-Lee Malone, Faculty Associate in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction, who teaches for the Game Design Certificate. “We aren’t teaching students just the basics of how to design a working game. We are teaching them to think about what their design decisions mean in a societal context.”

Matthew Berland

Matthew Berland, Associate Professor of Design, Creative, and Informal Education, emphasizes the importance in the Game Design Certificate curriculum of “making society better.” He says that games amplify voices that otherwise might not be heard. If a student makes art, people outside the Art Department may or may not come to see it. It’s unlikely that your friends outside Computer Sciences will want to explore your coding. But “when you build a simple game, you suddenly have buy-in among friends and people outside your department,” says Berland.

Nathaniel English is a fourth-year student majoring in History and Japanese with certificates in Game Design and Digital Art. Although he is not pursuing a major directly connected to game design, he believes that the certificate is teaching him valuable collaboration skills that will be useful throughout his career. 

“I believe that the skills necessary to work as part of a team making a game can be applied to almost any field,” English says. “I know that this program has given me the opportunity to bridge the gap between my hobbies and schoolwork while also learning to work as part of a team on months-long projects.”

The certificate curriculum requires that students complete at least one elective in Computer Sciences and Art in addition to four core courses. While the certificate is popular with Computer Sciences and Art majors, students majoring in everything from Accounting to Women’s Studies have also completed the Game Design Certificate, according to Berland.

CS undergrad Aidan Myers
Aidan Myers

For some, such as Computer Sciences major Aidan Myers, the certificate is a launching point for a future career in the gaming industry. Myers hopes to work at a gaming development studio after college and believes the Game Design Certificate coursework will be most directly helpful for their career plans out of everything they have been studying at UW-Madison.

“I’ve spent a lot of time throughout my youth sporadically trying out more and more complex ways to make games, and as I’ve grown up, learning about the amount of love and detail that goes into making video [games] seriously inspired me to try making games of my own,” Myers says. “I find a lot of fulfillment in the creation of things that evoke emotional responses, and as an interactive medium, I feel like video games have a unique ability to help do exactly that.”

Malone also emphasized that the certificate teaches skills that can be applied both in the gaming industry and all other career paths.

“We are teaching students to make games that have an impact,” she says. “The Wisconsin Idea is that education should have an impact beyond the classroom, and the tools we give students allow them to bring education into their designs – to make learning more engaging and take it out of a traditional classroom setting.”

Berland adds that games aren’t isolating but rather are a medium for connecting people. “We’re focusing on creating positive,” he says.  

Myers recommended, above all, that students interested in any element of game design – whether that be visual arts, computer science and coding, or simply games as a concept – should try out a course in game design. 

“Try out the certificate – the teaching staff for these classes are amazing, and I sincerely doubt that you won’t have fun in the process,” Myers says.