Choice is a wonderful thing. Blind choice isn't, and when it comes to degrees listing themselves as a great place to do a 'Technical Games Degree,' there's a lot of choice and not a lot of information available to sort the good from the bad.
It's this abundance of choice and the issues resulting from making the wrong choice that drives my involvement with SkillSet. Good courses need as many opportunities as possible to stand out from the crowd especially when prospective students may have to narrow down the universities they'll investigate let alone apply too.
What is the accreditation process?
I've been a lead evaluator for the SkillSet accreditation process for quite a few years now. The process (I'll keep it short) involves an application by the university to SkillSet, and a paper-based investigation into the university covering the skills taught, the attainment, and the employability of students (amongst other things).
This is followed by an on-site visit by an evaluation team. This visit involves interviews with staff and students, and an examination of the work done and the facilities available with a recommendation to accredit based on their findings. This evaluation team is always made up of active game developers working in the discipline the course focuses on.
Courses have and will continue to be rejected at various stages of the process if they are not up to scratch, and the criteria used is often very strict with a high barrier for entry. Courses have to be producing quality graduates with the skills suitable for the industry before they can even start to think about applying for accreditation.
Cross-skill courses (those teaching programming, art, and design in a single degree) have never been accredited and never will. The process and documentation is publicly available so you can have a more detailed look here.
There are a lot of universities in the UK, and a large number of them provide a some kind of game related technical course. Unfortunately a lot of them don't provide a high enough level of education to warrant the time and money students spend on them.
Accreditation awards allow students to quickly narrow down the kinds of universities they should be looking at and to spend the time they have investigating the best rather than trying to simply find the ones worthy of their time.
Word of mouth and past experience all goes into this, but it still takes time that could be better spent especially when students will be applying to universities at the same time as working towards their A-Levels, a period of time which may well be the most stressful time they've had in their academic career so far.
An accredited university at least gives them the knowledge that they'll get the right kind of education allowing them to focus on finding one that best suits them rather than anything else.
A lot of developers want to get involved with the education of future game makers, and university partnerships such as guest lectures and industry panels are one of the best ways to do that.
Universities like industry involvemen,t and some developers can end up being overwhelmed with requests especially if they are already working with other courses and word starts to spread. And because a developer's time is so valuable, it helps to be able to target the universities that we know are already providing the kinds of skills students will need in the future.
Building on a quality foundation allows much more scope for growth than having to start from the bottom and working upwards.
But you might think this is a path to ruin. If the industry only helps accredited courses, surely none can become accredited because no-ones willing to work with them to get there!
But that's not the case. Bigger companies such as Sony, Microsoft, Blitz, Codemasters, and others work with those up and coming courses, allowing them to get the point where they can apply for or work towards accreditation. Once that happens, it becomes a positive feedback loop. As the course gets better and gets accredited, it leads to more industry involvement, which leads to a better course…
It's the skills, stupid
The argument between game-focused and traditional Computer Science courses is always the same and is usually spot on. Take a CS course over a game course because in a few years you may not want to work in the industry, and the skills you learn on a CS could will put you in a stronger position should you want to do something else.
Without a doubt, this is a good argument to make but one that I hope accreditation can resolve. In every evaluation I've taken part in, the skills we look for and the modules on display show that the course could quite easily be rebranded as 'Computer Science with a games slant' rather than 'Games Technology with a little bit of Computer Science thrown in.'
As a result, the skills taught will still put the student in a good position should they decide the industry is not for them, and while a 'Games Technology' degree won't look as good as a 'Computer Science' degree on a CV, accreditation should allow it to grow in stature depending on which university awarded the degree.
[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]