At a recent animation festival in a small coastal town in the U.K., I posed a question to members of a panel that included figures from EA, Sony and DreamWorks Pictures. It was simple, direct and, in my mind at least, a question that desperately needed an answer. It was prefaced with a statement that suggested the games industry doesn’t feel like it is being supplied with talented young designers, and that educators like me are locked out of the often closed world of gaming.
“What can the games industry do to help tutors produce skilled young games developers, and what can we do to build bridges with you?” I asked. After traveling six hours – a world away from where I teach and work – to get a response, their lack of a clear answer was surprising. The host of the day talked about events like the one we were attending. The reps from Sony and EA looked at each other. They all mentioned basic arts skills – yep, we teach that. “Understand the industry better,” they suggested. Our curriculum does that, too. Then, before the long silence got even longer, they sought out other questions.
Although the panel’s responses were revealing, the most important thing about that day wasn’t the professionals delivering the keynote speeches: it was the 60 or so teenagers who made the journey to try and find out more about the games industry. Their peers in the U.S. are 11th grade juniors and 12th grade seniors. Every one of them was a fan of games, every one of them a gamer and every one of them a games development student from the Josiah Mason Campus of Sutton Coldfield College, an inner-city school in the middle of England.
They are pioneers too, because until very recently, any young adults that wanted to study videogames had to wait until they reached university to do so. Undergraduates across the U.K. are offered a bewildering array of games-related courses, from Games Technology to Digital Art for Computer Games. At last count, there are over 300 degree-level courses that pertain to games design. Yet young people who were passionate about the subject found themselves waiting around and taking other courses until they made it to university.
Then, in 2007, a change took place. Edexcel, an awarding body and exam board here in the U.K., quietly introduced a media course focusing on games, which colleges teaching the equivalent of high school students could provide. Most colleges ignored the new offering, deterred by the cost of setting up a new qualification and the risk of not actually attracting any students after investing all that time and money. Fortunately for the students at the festival, their college was among those that took advantage of the opportunity.
Fast-forward past a lot of paperwork and some marketing to bring people in, and you’ll find a department comprised of over 100 games development students in rooms that are in use from the moment we open the doors until the point where we have to clear them out at the end of the day. In our campus studios, within earshot of one of the busiest highways in Britain, you’ll find students working in 3ds Max. In another studio, a tutor is talking about how concept art is used in games. In a third, scripts are being generated and new characters born – some basic, but some brilliant. It’s a course that shouldn’t work when over 90 percent of our students receive financial support of some kind from the government – but work it does.
In spite of (or maybe because of) the low economic status of the area, creativity is booming. Students from more affluent areas are traveling into the city to study – something that was previously unheard of. It’s not uncommon to have two students from wildly different socio-economic backgrounds working side by side, finding common social ground in games. “Games Dev” is the accepted shortening of the course title among students and faculty, and it’s growing faster than I could have imagined. I hope my wife will excuse this descriptor, but this course really is my baby.
In the first year, students’ sessions are devoted to the study of 3-D modeling and animation, script writing and concept art. They develop traditional art skills, work with digital imagery, learn about the development of the industry and start to think critically about games. They learn to use industry standard software, too. All of which makes for a busy year, but our guarantee to them is that if they work hard they could happily sit alongside someone in a games studio and be useful to them two years down the line, or have the qualifications needed to study games further at a university.
It doesn’t hurt that the staff that teach them all have some background in the industry as well. For my part, I was originally a full-time games journalist for newsstand publications in the U.K. One colleague has been alpha and beta testing games for years. Another works for a games studio for most of the week, then devotes the rest of the time to the students. It’s a strange mix, but one that gives the students easier access to first-hand experience of the industry – handy, when they are as hungry, eager and passionate as mine.
At 21, Joe is one of the older members of his group, and his interest in games stretches back a long way. He explains: “I’ve been pretty much obsessed with games since I was 5, when I got my first NES. I remember trying to design my own game on paper wishing I could slot it into the NES and it’d work.” While the course doesn’t make games development quite that easy, Joe and students like him are getting closer to seeing their game ideas become real. Jamie, 17, can’t wait. “I just remember being 3 years old and playing Sonic 2. I absolutely loved it. As I got older I got more into technology and computers and digital art. Really since then I’ve known I want to work in games. It didn’t matter how I did it: Games were where I wanted to go.”
While happy to label themselves as game fans, these students and others like them are realistic about how competitive the industry is, and know they need every advantage they can get. Aged 18, Purple (the reason for his name becomes obvious when you meet him – purple hair, purple clothes, purple contact lenses) wants the industry to be more open and transparent, especially for people willing to invest time and money in studying games. “The only way we’ll get used to industry standards is if we sample the industry. Really get to understand the hierarchy of each part of the development team. Get in there and do unpaid work experience, just to get a feel for it.” he observed. 19-year-old Richard agrees: “It’d be great for them to give us their take on working in games, what they’ve been through and how they’ve gotten to where they are.”
There’s still progress to be made, and some hearts and minds to be won over. Concerned parents often presume that all their children will do is play games for two years. I tell them that if such a course existed, I’d be taking it, never mind teaching it. It’s true, though, that with some students, even after assuring them that this is games development, not game play, some still come expecting a two year gaming marathon. A few students arrive with their own extra baggage too, with some living in foster care and others dealing with issues of homelessness, grasping onto games dev as a way out (or at least a way up).
Some of the college’s less technologically savvy faculty are still a little confused about the program. One of my students revealed that when he enquired about games development for the first time, a confused member of the wider college ushered him towards a tutor that teaches physical education. Some colleges are rushing courses out there with little planning and even fewer resources because they know the word “games” can attract their target audience en masse, but having them in the mix only seems to tar us with the same brush. The expansion of the course and explosion in numbers has raised our profile, not only in the building in which we’re based, but across the campuses as a whole. The student’s achievements and work produced thus far have spurred that on even more. There’s work to be done, but we’re getting there.
Which brings me nicely back to the start, where I asked the panel how we could close the gap between us and them. Since their answers were so unsatisfying, I’ll offer one of my own: My students have taken two years out of their lives to get ready for entering the industry. They’ve been fans of games for most of their young lives. They have and will continue to fund the industry as avid games buyers, even when money is tight. Perhaps since they’ve made the effort to really understand the industry they love, those in games should do the same. Open your doors to them, literally: Let them visit your studios and talk to your staff. Use them as a sample target audience, and let them give feedback on games in development. Then maybe the next generation of games developers will be more skilled, more creative and ready earlier to provide a much needed injection of raw talent. After all, that’s what they’re in Games Dev for.
Dean Reilly is a video games journalist and teacher of games development in the U.K. Find out more at www.sutcol.ac.uk