I've seen it too many times: a high schooler loves playing video games, doesn't know what to do with himself in college, and sees “Game Design” as a major at a school he or she is applying to. Or, worse yet, they tell their school counselor that their favorite activity is playing video games and the counselor suggests this particular degree. The kid gets into the school, arrives and starts going to classes. But wait – they're difficult. “There's lots of math involved!”, “I have to program?”, and “I don't have time to play games anymore!” are all common phrases I've heard a million times before. One of two things happens: either the student leaves for a different major or a different school, or he or she sucks it up and realizes that they're actually up for the challenge. (Note: this last one is very uncommon. Most of the student who stay realize that it involves a lot of work, and – in this case – a lot of programming as well.)
Too many people are drawn to this industry because the job title of “Game Designer” is up there with “Rock Star” in terms of the coolness factor. Ask a group of teenage boys what they want to do someday, and I bet you at least one of them will say “I want to make video games.” But how many rock stars or game designers do you actually know? Neither one of them is an easy job, and they're more glamorized in the media than they have any right to be. (Perhaps someday I'll explore the reasons why I decided not to pursue the rock star route after high school – I seriously considered it, but decided against it and I'm glad I did.) A lot of people don't really know what goes on in either of those jobs, and it's often not pretty when they find out.
It turns out designing games is especially difficult. If you read some of the more serious books out there, such as Salen & Zimmerman's excellent Rules Of Play, it's easy to see that games are essentially just a collection of formalized rules and systems. I'm not going to go too far in depth on this particular topic today, but this happens to be one of my particular interests, so it bothers me that so many people tend to ignore these facts. Many people think that being a game designer means that you sit in a room, think for a while, and suddenly tell people how to make The Sims 13. Instead, there's a significant amount of research and rule design that comes into play – all while keeping in mind that it still needs to be fun in the end. It's also a series of compromises – a game designer almost never has absolute full control over his or her game, and refusing to take others' input is a good way to get fired.
Other jobs in the game industry are equally as difficult. Artists and modelers have to balance the highest quality they can make with the limitations of how much can be drawn on the screen at a time, programmers have to constantly push the hardware and do whatever they can with it, audio designers have to worry about sound that either dynamically changes with the game or doesn't get tiring when played on a constant loop, level designers have to worry about the complexity and paths through their levels, etc. etc.
Even the most popular job for people who say “I like playing games!” – being a game tester, also known as working in Quality Assurance, isn't what so many people think. Rather than getting to play games early, it often consists of playing the same section of a game over and over and over trying out every possible combination of buttons, items, or anything else. Once you find something unusual, you need to make sure you can reproduce the bug, write it up, and submit it to the dev team. One of the worst stories I've heard about was for a well-known PC game, which required that somebody install each build on every type of hardware from the minimum specs to the highest, make sure it runs, uninstall it, and then reinstall it again – on every operating system supported. Sounds fun, doesn't it?
If the challenges for one of these sounds doable, congratulations! Now you have to fight tooth and nail to actually get the job. As awful as I've made some of these out to be, there's still a huge number of people who want to work in the industry and a very small number of jobs. Getting a job consists of a few things: your past experience, the connections you have in the industry who will help with a job in a company or vouch for you, and your portfolio. Some companies may require more or less, or you may get lucky, but usually it's a combination of those three. “Breaking in” – getting the first job – can often be the hardest, as you usually don't have much of any of those three. Those who do make it tend to have worked hard for the connections or the portfolio – or both. If you're applying to game jobs and you haven't done anything at all – not even indie games or even any work on your own – odds are you'll have a very difficult time.
You'll notice I didn't mention much about playing games in the past few paragraphs. That's because it doesn't really matter if you love playing games – playing games and making games are two very different things. And the sooner most people realize this, the better off everybody is – the industry has fewer people attempting to break in, and people may realize that it's not the right place for them. That being said, if it is right – by all means, go for it and don't be afraid! Just be willing to dedicate yourself and put in your all.