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MUD Co-Creator Bartle Criticizes Gaming And Academia Divide

MUD Co-Creator Bartle Criticizes Gaming And Academia Divide

August 14, 2008 | By Mathew Kumar, Leigh Alexander

August 14, 2008 | By Mathew Kumar, Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

Veteran designer Richard Bartle, seminal co-creator of the first ever multi-user dungeon (MUD), says the best undergraduate degrees for game development in the UK come from Abertay, Coventry, Derby, Nottingham Trent, Portsmouth, Sheffield Hallam, Staffordshire and Teeside.

Notice anything unusual? "All of the top computer game courses are at modern universities -- former polytechnics and institutes," he says. Of 72 UK universities listed by UCAS as offering games courses in 2008, only 8 of them were universities in 1992 -- and this divide persists, Bartle asserted during a speech at the Edinburgh Interactive Festival.

"If you look at the subjects these 8 universities offer, they're not really wholeheartedly behind games," says Bartle. "They're titles like computer graphics, vision and games, computer science with games technology... lots of 'ands' and 'withs' there."

Why, then do modular universities, the sort that used to be polytechnic institutes, dominate the arena?

It has to do, says Bartle, with the things modern universities do that their predecessors wouldn't. Modern universities are willing to take risks, he says. "The early adopters bet the farm on computer games, and would have had deep problems if the areas hadn't recruited undergraduates."

Modern universities also benefit from modular course structures and fewer administrative hurdles. But it is possible to shift the paradigm, so why don't older institutions follow suit?

For one thing, they don't consider games "academically respectable," Bartle asserts. For another, computer games staff don't get included in research assessment submissions, because there are no first-class journals specific to the medium -- and, of course, major universities just don't see any money in it, he says.

Bartle, who is currently a Principal Fellow and Visiting Professor at the Department of Computing and Electronic Systems at Essex University, explained ruefully: "None of this would matter if it were without consequences. Unfortunately, there are consequences."

Modern universities focus on training in the way that vocational schools do, says Bartle, while older ones have a tradition of education.

"The difference is that training is the acquisition of skills and knowledge as a result of being taught, while education is the acquisition of skills and knowledge as a result of learning -- a more rounded, think-for-yourself ideal," says Bartle.

The problem is, these modern training houses are doing their jobs, producing plenty of adequately-trained would-be games professionals -- "But because the older universities aren't doing theirs, we're getting too few educated people," Bartle says.

And higher education funding in the UK never goes to computer games research, says Bartle -- they fund "games as education" research, not games research.

"We also see games as AI, economics, psychology, sociology, therapy, training...There's nothing wrong with this, but we're seeing games for everything except for games," he says.

He cites conflicting research on the reasons men and women swap gender in MMORPGs as an example of why universities should fund more games-specific research, and also calls for more quantitative study on what makes good game design.

"Where will the games industry be if the only public money available is for games-as-anything-but-games?" asks Bartle.

"None of this is at all interesting to funding bodies or research departments, but it will be 20 years from now, because today's game-playing students become tomorrow's professors. By then it will be too late."

The oft-controversial professor ended by noting: "I'm not saying we shouldn't use [games] as educational tools -- I'm saying we shouldn't only use them for that."

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