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Opinion: The Value Of Education

Opinion: The Value Of Education

June 22, 2011 | By Phil Carlisle

June 22, 2011 | By Phil Carlisle
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[Researcher and video game developer Phil Carlisle shares why the game industry should embrace game education and help shape its direction, in this #altdevblogaday-reprinted opinion piece.]

A bit of background: Up until recently, I have been taking a break from commercial game development to work in education as a lecturer teaching game design and game programming at the University of Bolton in England. I got into this after shipping Worms 3D, the last of a number of Worms games I’d worked on while at Team17.

Education seemed like a reasonable choice when I had decided to leave Team17 because I wanted to try something completely new and didn’t feel particularly driven to work for another games company in the UK. Team17 had been a pretty good place to work, and the guys there were great so I didn’t expect to find anywhere that was better.

I had considered taking a job in developer relations, because I enjoyed travel, I enjoyed talking to other developers, and I thought maybe there would be some variety to the role. As it happens, the first search I did on Hoogle hit the job I would end up taking at the University, and it took all of a week to make the change.

I went into education wanting to give something to the new generation of game developers and over that time have had some highs and some lows, and I wanted to explain a few of those here so that those of you thinking about working as educators, or those of you working in the industry considering education, or just the academically curious can gain at least one persons perspective.

I’ve been working as a senior lecturer teaching across two courses, namely games programming (we call that computer game software development for historical reasons) and games design. Normally I tend to work in the final year because I found it incredibly hard teaching at the first year level.

One thing you imagine when you first start a job like this, is that everyone who comes into a university is self motivated, capable of working hard and is driven with a thirst for knowledge. You imagine a ninja army of super programmers and designers who you can mould into an unstoppable killing force of game development.

Unfortunately on the whole, what you actually get is much more of a mixed bag of typical late teens/early twenties youth. It really shouldn’t be a surprise I suppose, but the reality is that people come into education for a variety of reasons and one of those reasons is because they simply don’t have the will to do something else.

I’m not saying there aren’t ninja’s in the mix, because there are. But the reality is that in any single body of people, you will always find a mixture of motivations and some people have more passion and drive than others. Even within game companies you can see that some people are more passionate about the task than others.

So What Is The Role Of Education? Especially A Specialized Sducation Like Game Development?

For myself, I wanted to teach people the reality of game development in its raw beauty and uglyness. I wanted to try and make them consider the ways in which game development was changing and to be able to be self critical about not just the development process, but about their thought processes.

It’s surprisingly hard for people in the industry to take time and get a perspective on what it is they are doing, because deadlines always come sooner than you would like and work is always much too hectic to allow you to step back and really critique your own thinking.

While at the University, I’ve been working as a researcher and supervisor, and one thing I’ve learned is that there is value in actually thinking about the development process from different perspectives. Evaluating how we do things with a critical sense can help us identify our own biases and motivations and I think this is a very useful skill we should all learn.

In practical terms, especially in game design, there is value in being able to consider our work in terms of how we evaluate our success. We have pushed our design students towards being able to critique their own work, and it is amazing how they change over the course of three years.

In the first year, they come in simply as game players, so we teach the tools and techniques of production (level design etc). In the second year, they use that production and are taught more about what to consider when producing (aesthetics, pacing, space etc). In the final year they are taught the value of metrics, evaluation, psychology and criticism.

We see a vast difference in the maturity of students within this relatively short space of time. Although I must admit to occasionally getting very angry with them (one particular second year class I was sitting in on some presentations for a colleague, and it just incensed me that they had failed to see very obvious flaws in their designs; later those same students turned out to be far more skilled at self criticism as they had matured immensely).

The use of the scientific method for evaluation of game designs is something that we’ve been pushing hard. Things like metrics, psychophysiology, and the creation of a core base of scientific research on the effect of games on players and on our understanding of the creation of games has been a pillar of our teaching.

Honestly, game design still feels like it is based far too much on intuition and far too little on understanding and objective evaluation. But that will slowly change (and thankfully has been changing) as more designers understand the real value of metrics and discover new methods of analysis and construction.

The Highs And Lows?

One of the low points for me in all of this work, is that the games industry still does not value education properly. Especially not the specialized games education I have been involved with. It is frustrating to hear that people would prefer “comp sci” rather than game programming, because fundamentally they are the same thing, just with a bias towards delivering the problem set in a manner that addresses thinking in terms of games instead of general software.

How it can be more valid to teach in the context of say database design rather than in the context of games is beyond me. Luckily the reality is that good programmers are good programmers, and people tend to be able to evaluate that no matter the context, so my graduates have been pretty consistantly finding jobs in the industry in spite of the many detractors.

Another low point has been the realization that not everyone who says they want to work in game development is cut out to work in game development. Either because they can’t take the pressure of the work, they can’t self-motivate themselves, or because they simple aren’t capable of working at the level the industry requires.

It’s sad to say, but the industry is demanding, and it really isn’t for everyone, so we have to be quite strict when faced with people who can’t achieve the required standard. Strangely enough, you can usually tell within the first week or two of a three-year degree who will finish well and go into the industry and who will not.

The final low point is how far we have yet to go in establishing games as a credible subject area worthy of academic study in its own right. Frankly there are very few people in academia that really “get” games, and so you have this surreal situation where academia has gone in completely the wrong direction and the games industry has simply not participated in forming that direction.

The highs have come from seeing my students succeed, both in terms of getting jobs in the industry as well as becoming mature thinkers who are capable of really getting to the heart of a problem. There is also my own research, which has changed my own viewpoints as I have taken more time to consider what really interests me. My research is about game characters (which I am calling “digital actors”) and artificial intelligence, and actually the act of doing research has opened my eyes in terms of my understanding of my own work and the work we have done in games to date.

Conclusions?

If there is one thing that this work in education has shown me, it is that there is considerable value in studying games. The games industry would do well to embrace games education and to become active in shaping its direction, rather than simply taking the best students as workforce.

The industry should actively engage academics, many of whom do not understand games, so that we all learn more about the things we create. Developers should take time to educate themselves not just in the production of games or game content methods, but in the critique of their own works and the works of the industry at large.

There is a lot of work to do before we better understand how to consistantly make games that actually mean something to players. We have relied on licenses and franchises for many year,s but those will only sustain a very narrow audience. If we want to engage more people, we have to understand more than just production. Study in its broadest sense, involves thinking about what you do. We need to think about what (and why) we do what we do more.

As I transition back into the games industry, I feel happy to have had the experience of education because it has shown me that there is life outside of the trenches of development. As my research goes on and I apply it to the products I am involved with, I gain insight into the subject and I now have the skills to try and analyse that knowledge I have gained. I can start to really understand what it is I’m trying to achieve and evaluate more rigorously wether I am any nearer to achieving my goal.

For those of you not currently in the industry but considering going into education as a means to getting there, I would advise you to really think about why you want to get into the industry. Only begin on this path if you are truly motivated to create games rather than play them.

For those of you in the industry considering getting into education, I would say there is considerable value in the academic process to you as a developer, in thinking beyond your own situation and considering the greater picture. Education can help open your mind by virtue of you simply taking the time to think about the “why” of your own work.

I’m not saying you need a University necassarily to do any of this. Education doesn’t require an institution much like religion doesn’t require a church. You can educate yourself by simply opening yourself up to new ways of thinking and by being active in seeking new viewpoints. Conferences, books, blogs all have a place. Read beyond your own subject, read about psychology if you are a designer, read about patterns if you are a programmer. Begin the process, and you will very quickly discover new insights into what you do that make subsequent efforts more meaningful.

Education is very valuable, if you embrace it as part of your life.

[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.]


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