Top 10 California Game Design Schools - 2018 Rankings
1University of Southern CaliforniaLos Angeles
2University of CaliforniaSanta Cruz
3University of California, IrvineIrvine
4Gnomon School of Visual EffectsHollywood
5University of California Los AngelesLos Angeles
6Academy of Art UniversitySan Francisco
7Otis College of Art and DesignLos Angeles
8Laguna College of Art and DesignLaguna Beach
9Woodbury University, Burbank, CaliforniaBurbank
10Cogswell CollegeSan Jose

Our 2018 rankings of the top 10 gaming programs in California. For an explanation of ranking criteria, click here.

1. University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California
University of Southern California

Established in 1880, University of Southern California (USC) is home to 45,500 students enrolled in more than 200 undergraduate programs, 300-plus graduate programs, and more than 150 minors. Program options for aspiring game designers are offered through Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science and the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences’ Interactive Media & Games Division. Dornsife programs are offered in in conjunction with the School of Cinematic Arts.

Viterbi School of Engineering offerings include a BS in Computer Science – CSCI (Games), an MS in Computer Science (Game Development), and a PhD in Computer Science with a Game Design and Development or Virtual Reality research area. A Minor in Computer Science and a Progressive Degree Program (PDP) are also available.

The PDP allows exceptional undergraduate students to “start graduate-level classes during their senior year and request a reduction in the units required for the Master’s degree.” This “allows students to earn the MS in Computer Science with one or two additional semesters of study.” The PDP is available for the MS in Computer Science (Game Development).

The Interactive Media & Games Division offers a BA in Interactive Entertainment, an intensive three-year MFA in Interactive Media and an MFA in Interactive Media (Games and Health), and an MA in Cinematic Arts (Media Arts, Games and Health). The Division’s extensive list of minors include Game Design, Game Animation, Game Audio, Game Entrepreneurism, Game User Research, Themed Entertainment, Video Game Design and Management, Video Game Programming, 3D Computer Modeling and Graphics, and Computer Science.

In addition to a wide variety of program options for aspiring game designers, USC is home to the GamePipe Laboratory. Sponsored by Intel, Sony, and other technology companies, the Lab produces a "Demo Day," which allows students to showcase their work. The semiannual event attracts game industry reps, reporters, faculty, students, and hundreds of spectators from across the country.

2. University of California, Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California
University of California, Santa Cruz

The University of California - Santa Cruz (UCSC) opened in 1965. The school is home to more than 18,000 students enrolled in more than 100 degree programs across 10 colleges. The Jack Baskin School of Engineering (BSOE), Department of Computer Science (CS) and Computational Media (CMPM) Department, offers several programs for aspiring game designers. Options include a BS in Computer Science: Computer Game Design, an MS in Games & Playable Media, and MS and PhD degrees in Computational Media or Computer Science with a Research Focus in Computer Games.

The UCSC Art Department houses the Arts Division, which offers an MFA in Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) with a Playable Media Research Option. UCSC is also home to The Center for Games and Playable Media. Established in 2010, the Center houses the schools “five games-related research labs including the Expressive Intelligence Studio — one of the largest technical game research groups in the world.”

3. University of California, Irvine, Irvine, California
University of California, Irvine

The University of California - Irvine (UC Irvine) was established in 1965. It is home to nearly 36,000 students enrolled over 100 programs across more than a dozen schools. The Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences offers a BS in Computer Game Science (CGS). According to the School, throughout the major CGS students will “gain hands-on experience in creating a variety of digital games, for entertainment purposes, but also for education, training and engendering social change.”

Working in teams, students “will employ a variety of different programming languages, game platforms and hardware.” Overall, the program “strongly emphasizes the technical aspects of creating games, as well as working in teams to design and implement them.”

4. Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Hollywood, California
Gnomon School of Visual Effects

Established in 1997, Gnomon School of Visual Effects specializes in computer graphics education for careers in the entertainment industry. The school, which has 600 graduates to date, offers degree and vocational programs, as well as single courses. Programs for aspiring game designers include a four-year Digital Production BFA, a three-year Entertainment and Digital Production Certificate, and a two-year Digital Production for Entertainment Certificate.

Single courses are available as well and include Game Creation, Game Design, Anatomy of Games, Animation for Games, Character Creation for Games, Creature Design, Texturing and Shading for Games, Digital Sculpting, Visual Effects for Games, Props and Weapons for Games, Hard Surface Modeling, Photoshop for Digital Production, and Introduction to 3D with Maya. Students have the option to mix and match courses to meet their career goals, and some courses are available 100% online.

5. University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California
University of California Los Angeles

Founded in 1919 as the Southern Branch of the University of California, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)  serves nearly 45,500 students from all 50 states and more than 100 foreign countries. The school offers 125+ undergraduate majors across 109 academic departments, and more than 40 graduate programs. The School of Arts and Architecture houses the Department of Design Media Arts (DMA). Here, aspiring game designers can earn either a BA or MFA degree in Design Media Arts (BA DMA and MFA DMA).

The DMA program highlights game design study, interactivity and games, video and animation, visual communication, and more. With support from the School of Theater, Film, and Television, DMA also houses the UCLA Game Lab, whose primary function is to serve as “a research and production space for collaborative teams to pursue focused work on gaming projects.”

The Lab supports exploration of Game Aesthetics, Game Context, and Game Genres, while emphasizing the “conceptual risk-taking and development of new modes of expression and form through gaming.” In addition to producing games and research, the lab “functions as a center that develops public programming around critical issues in gaming, including: public lectures, workshops, exhibitions, a visiting artist program, and an annual public festival at the Hammer Museum.”

6. Academy of Art University, San Francisco, California
Academy of Art University

Academy of Art University was established in 1929. The school serves more than 7,200 students enrolled in dozens of Art, Design, Fashion, and Architecture programs. Degrees are offered at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and many programs are available entirely online.

The School of Game Development at Academy of Art has a variety of degree programs for aspiring game designers. Options include AA, BFA, MA, and MFA degrees in Game Development and a BS in Game Programming. According to the school, these multidisciplinary programs provide a “well-rounded education in the arts with an emphasis on understanding and applying techniques including 3D modeling, animation and lighting in video game production.” 

The Game Development programs at Academy of Art prepare students for positions such as game designer, 3D modeler, concept artist, UI/UX designer, and many others.

7. Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, California
Otis College of Art and Design

Otis College of Art and Design (OTIS) was established in 1918 by founder and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, General Harrison Gray Otis. The school serves approximately 1,100 full-time students enrolled in 11 BFA degree programs and MFA degrees in Fine Arts, Graphic Design, Public Practice, and Writing. A variety of minors and certificate programs are also available.

OTIS offers a BA in Digital Media with a Game and Entertainment Design Emphasis and a Minor in Digital Media. The school says students in the Game and Entertainment Design Major “develop their skills in concept art and visual development, learning the principles and processes involved in creating the first visual representations of characters, environments, and props for films and games.”

Students will also acquire the skills to “design the gameplay, environment, storyline, and characters of interactive games, apps, and websites. Using the most advanced CGI technologies, students acquire the techniques to create stunning visual effects for films, commercials, and videos.” All OTIS students have access to nine labs and shops from audio/video to the model shop.

8. Laguna College of Art and Design, Laguna Beach, California
Laguna College of Art and Design

Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD) was established in 1961 as the Laguna Beach School of Art. The school serves more than 600 students enrolled in twelve undergraduate majors and four graduate degrees. Just a few options include Animation, Illustration, Drawing, and Game Design.

LCAD has two programs for aspiring game designers: a BFA in Game Art and an Art of Game Design MFA. The Game Art BFA is a project-based program that highlights a collaborative environment, partnerships with USC’s graduate program (GamePipe), among others, and exclusive access to teachers and mentors that come from Blizzard Entertainment, Sony Online Entertainment, Appy Entertainment, Double Helix, Obsidian Entertainment, NCsoft Carbine Studios, Insomniac, and Highmoon.

The school says that students may choose to further develop and perfect their skills through industry internships that apply theory to real world situations. Additionally, the Game Art program hosts workshops that have featured such inspirational giants as Steven Huston and Nathan Fowkes.

The Art of Game Design MFA is an online two-year terminal degree that explores the design and development of games as a creative practice. Sample courses for the program include Game Narrative, Specialized Programming, Game Audio, Game Production, Mechanics Based Game Analysis, Management Psychology, and Prototyping. The program also features a Meaningful Games Summer Session worth six credit hours.

9. Woodbury University, Burbank, California
Woodbury University

Founded in 1884, Woodbury University is one of the oldest institutions of higher education in Southern California. The school serves more than 1,500 students enrolled in 20 practice-based, professional and liberal arts undergraduate and graduate majors across three schools including the School of Architecture, the School of Business, and the School of Media, Culture & Design.

The School of Media, Culture & Design at Woodbury University offers a BFA in Game Art & Design and a BS in Applied Computer Science. The BFA has Concentrations in Game Design or Game Art. Because the School promotes cross-disciplinarity as a core attribute of the school, BFA students may also study in other areas such as animation, media technology, filmmaking and others.

Regardless of concentration, says the school, the Game Art & Design program teaches how to “conceptualize and develop video games from scratch.” In addition to game design, students will study topics in animation, computer technology, sound design, and story development.

The school says students in the BS in Applied Computer Science is a unique STEM Program with an emphasis on Technology in a creative context. Students in the program will learn the skills needed to become active creators and developers of the new digital age. With a strong focus on creativity and design, students will become proficient in several programming languages with applications to a variety of platforms and fields such as virtual reality, mobile and web apps, live events, robotics, film, VFX, gaming, advertisement, and more.

All BS students and BFA students must complete an internship to graduate. BS students have interned at places such as Microsoft, Nickelodeon Animation Studios, Code Headquarters, and IMAX Corporation. Past internships for BFA students have included positons at Insomniac Games, Activision Blizzard, Disney, Skydance Interactive, Nexon, and many others.

10. Cogswell College, San Jose, California
Cogswell College

In 1888, Cogswell College opened its doors in San Francisco as Cogswell Polytechnical College. Today this specialized school serves more than 600 students enrolled in seven academic programs. Among them are two programs for aspiring game designers—a BA in Game Design Art and a BS in Game Design Engineering. BA students may focus in Game Art or Game Writing.

All game students will learn to program or design video games in classes such as 3D Modeling, Level Design, Game Production, Scripting: Python, and Character Rigging. The school says its game design classes simulate an actual game development team, where students will play video games made by their peers, testing them for usability and quality. From idle animations to combat to level design and artificial intelligence, the school says students will learn each building block of video game design and development, all while using professional tools like Maya, Unity and Unreal Engine.

In addition, all students will have the opportunity to work in Cogswell’s Game Studio. This two-semester, Project-Based Learning class allows students to form teams that parallel a “real industry environment” and create a game. Students will finish the program with a fully realized, professional-grade title in their portfolio.