Developer's Guide To Talking To Students
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I'd like to open with a bit about me:
I'm Devon Wiersma, I've been a Game Master for tabletop RPGs for ~8 years now as well as a freelance author for ookpixels.ca and TorontoGameDevs.com. I've done contract work at small startup and have spent the last few months working as a Junior Level Designer on Riverbond by Cococucumber. Last February I even paid for a trip down to GDC and helped demo our game at the Media Indie Exchange and GDC Play where it won Best In Play (which was pretty neat, to say the least).
Oh, and I'm also a third year Game Design student from Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada.
Lately I've been reflecting a lot about my previous blog on how to network for Students and some of my more negative experiences with industry professionals. Eventually come to a realization that there are some game developers who struggle to communicate with students in a healthy manner.
In light of that I figured it'd be handy to put together some more Hot Tips™ on how YOU can interact with students in a positive way!
So let's go~
Hot Tip™ 1: We're Not Students
"But wait! The article called you people 'students', what gives?!"
Let me explain:
Most students (especially those out networking) just want to feel comfortable. Networking can be awkward for everyone involved but doubly so for students, most of which still aren't familiar with the practice.
Chances are unless the event you're at is specifically catered towards educating students we aren't there to be lectured at, we're there to meet friendly faces and chat about goings on. Puzzlingly, there are plenty of developers who seem to interpret the phrase "I'm a student" to mean "I'd like to know what you think my career path should be" or something to that effect, see Tip 4 for more on that...
Basically, we students are just people too. For us it can be especially tough to find people who will speak to you like a regular human being, because for some the mention of our status seems to imply we have ulterior motives like finding jobs or generally just being immature.
We're not always on a mad hunt for knowledge or connections, sometimes we're just looking to meet new folks and have a good time.
Hot Tip™ 2: We're Just Students
Ignoring my hypocrisy, socializing with developers is intimidating when you hardly know anyone at most events and have less experience to go off of than others in a conversation. That's not even considering the wide birth of experience that can exist between an amateur game dev and an experienced one.
And yet, the ostracizing vibe of 'we are the new blood after your jobs' is a familiar sensation students have pushed onto them from time to time. It's not that unusual to meet an industry professional who will adamantly proclaim their veterancy to us either, as if our presence is an attack on their status or an attempt to undermine their knowledge of the industry.
Experienced developers, don't be threatened by us students - trust me, we're not out to get you. We're too busy struggling to get a start in the industry while juggling assignments, so we don't often have any domination goals beyond that.
If anything we mostly admire your experience and strive to learn from you, which leads me to the next Hot Tip:
Hot Tip™ 3: We're Smarter Than You'd Assume
(Or, 'Don't Judge A Book')
Before I went to GDC I heard one of the worst things you can do is assume somebody's status or position in the industry and not only is this good practice in speaking to anyone, this applies to students as well.
A number of students I know come from a varied background - some were journalists, others from mathematics degrees while others still are straight out of highschool. Pegging students as all having similar motivations, aspirations or qualifications is as naive as assuming every person you've ever seen was probably an alien in disguise.
It's...not exactly conductive to healthy social relationships.
The number of times I've nodded and smiled through a conversation out of politeness as someone meticulously explained to me simple concepts I was familiar with I probably can't even count with my fingers. Obviously that's not to say they were of ill intent in doing so or that I don't appreciate the opportunity of learning something new from someone, but the act is frequently misguided under the assumption I don't know because I'm still in college.
A good way to operate around this is to simply assume a student has a vague idea of what you're talking about as you speak to them. If it's something new or unknown to them chances are they'll speak up and give you a chance to elaborate about it (like anyone else).
This bleeds heavily into my final and most important Hot Tip:
Hot Tip™ 4: Only Teach Us If We Ask For It
Have you experienced the adrenaline rush that comes with introducing yourself to an industry professional only to have them soliloquy to you about how a job in games is difficult and includes crunch time and they aren't getting paid enough and their team lead is a jerk and they don't know if they want to do it anymore? Now imagine that was the very first conversation you experienced at your very first industry event you've ever attended with the first industry developer you've spoken to. Now imagine that conversation carries on for an hour because you don't want to tell them you've heard all these warnings before and hurt their ego.
That happened to me and it was the crowning moment where I realized I shouldn't tell anyone I'm a student for fear of all my future conversations would revolve around horror stories and patronizing advice.
And in fact, lots of my conversations where I mention I'm a student still wind up the exact same way.
Another instance I've talked about before was when another well-meaning developer told me (after interjecting into a conversation I was having with a lead developer of a well-established indie studio) that if I wanted a job in the industry me and my friends just needed to make an indie game, ship it and make a bunch of money. I'm paraphrasing of course because the actual conversation took well over ten minutes and only taught me that my developer friend and I needed to get up to find a different table to sit at.
There are few things more exhausting for me as a student than hearing the same horror stories about development over and over again.
I'm going to be blunt here, so I apologize if this sounds a little know-it-all-y:
No one is going to look at a portfolio with/without ______
You don't say.
You're likely going to have to crunch for long hours to meet deadlines
I know (I've had to do it too)
It won't necessarily pay well.
It'll pay better than my previous minimum-wage job at fast food joint.
You won't have time to play games.
That's okay, I don't have the time to in school either.
Making games is a big lifestyle and career choice.
*puts on a sweet pair of shades*
We knew the risks when we signed up.
Again, it's not that this advice isn't useful, but oftentimes those students still in post-secondary education with the goal of getting into the game industry are well aware of plenty of these considerations.
But I digress.
The developers myself and many others look up to and have learned the most from as a student aren't the ones sharing these sort of sentiments like they're profound facts or even absolute truths. They're the ones who trust us to know this already and instead put their efforts towards helping us to thrive in an industry we're still lost in. They accept us as friends and as future associates and grab lunch with us when they hear we're in the area.
Remember: Students often just want to be treated as equals. Not as lost puppies or 'new blood' or untested developers.
Just as game developers.
I hope this perspective helps you better understand things through a student's eyes, and thank you for reading!