I hear the words, and it feels like a shot to the gut: “I have no respect for people who teach in a game program who haven’t worked in the industry.” I happen to be standing next to just such a person: my friend Jason, a professor at a four-year school in California. We’re at a conference talking to Scott, an industry friend of mine. In an instant, I’m overcome by empathy, embarrassment and a desire to make the conversation magically end by any means possible.
“I don’t know,” I offer, “I think the balance is critical. I wouldn’t feel the same way about any other form of art or media. Just because someone hasn’t sold their paintings commercially doesn’t mean they’re any less of a painter. Plus, I think the perspective is good.” I specifically recall a couple of art historians who turned me on to the works of Jackson Pollock and Gerhard Richter. I have no idea if they could have created what they taught. It never occurred to me to ask.
We go back and forth for a bit, but the conversation is clearly uncomfortable for Jason, and so we leave. Industry goes its way and academia another. It is, I think, an unfortunate parting.
As we walk away, I tell Jason of a conversation I had at the Montreal Game Summit shortly after I entered academia. I’m having dinner with friends, when one says, “Oh my goodness, you’re a professor now.” She pauses to take it in, then corrects herself: “No, you’re a game developer who teaches.” It was a subtle difference, but to her, it made all the difference in the world.
With 25 years on one side and three on the other, I can tell you that the difference between our two worlds isn’t as big as one might think, and the delineations between “practicing” and “preaching” are not as important as they often seem. There is value to each side of the equation. There is also great value in there being no equation, no sides at all.
Leaving and Coming
It’s 2006. After 25 years in the game industry, I am again looking for a gig while facing a company in the mid-to-late stages of combustion. An advertisement from the Savannah College of Art and Design is on the top of the morning’s list. It is the first time that I consider the possibility of doing something else, something other than game development, a job I have been doing since I was 15 years old.
The first step in the whole process hinges on my academic credentials. “I have 21 shipped titles,” I say. Though this collection impresses every other company at which I interview, it doesn’t seem to be the key selling point here. It never occurs to me that my education, earned in a previous lifetime, could have a bearing on my present job-worthiness. “Many of them won awards,” I add. It matters, but it doesn’t.
“For me, that was the stupidest part,” says Randy, a veteran Art Lead currently working on an Xbox 360 and PS3 title. His mobygames.com listing clears the 15-title mark. “I mean, I’ve shipped how many games, and I’m somehow not qualified to teach people how to make them? Give me a fucking break.” I tell Randy about the time I stood up at a particular conference to comment on the same thing. I thought it absurd that some of our best and brightest were considered unfit to teach for lack of a piece of paper. I was unaware at the time that it was not a judgment call.
“It feels like a judgment call,” says Jeff, a programmer with 10 years in the games industry, “like they’re saying that this piece of paper is more important than my experience, and that’s ridiculous.” It is a refrain I hear again and again from fellow developers hoping to make the leap.
The degree is a statement of separation, a clean dividing line between us and them. It was only when I landed on the other side of that line that I realized why the credentials were so important: accrediting bodies are, in a sense, the ESRB of academia. If you don’t get your game (degree program) rated (accredited), you enter a whole new territory – one where you probably don’t want to be. Among other things, credentialed faculty are a part of the accrediting process. I talk with dozens of academics and even department heads who would love to hire game developers based only on experience, if only they could.
“There is also the matter of whether or not people can actually teach what they do,” a friend and fellow professor points out. Teaching is a gig all its own, a unique set of skills refined over time. I can think of some successful people in the game industry who struggle to compose their ideas for a single meeting, let alone a quarter or a semester.
As nice as it is for a faculty member to have real-world experience, it’s not everything, and it shouldn’t be.
Sacrilege. Mike doesn’t say it, but I suspect he thinks it. Mike is a game designer and programmer that I’ve known for years. He and I are talking about the issue via Skype. “Experience teaches you a lot that a non-industry prof could not know,” he says. “They can hear the stories and parrot them, but true knowledge of [game design] is different.”
I recognize his thinking, because it was mine. Teaching and researching changed my perspective, and I don’t know whether it could have happened any other way.
Here is what I learned: Going into the industry is not the only reason people study games. Our medium, our art form, is so much more diverse than that. Games are old enough to be truly ancient and new enough to be controversial. Games are a part of culture, politics and art. They play a part in winning wars and helping soldiers deal with the aftermath. They are worthy of deep study, criticism and experimentation, just like films, music or any of the arts, be they fine, plastic or digital. The simple beauty that is Passage did not come from behind industry lines, nor did the MUD. Even the first series I worked on, Wizardry, came from students at Cornell.
“Game education is not just about the industry,” I say. “It is also about the chance to study, to experiment, to push, to wonder ‘what if,’ and we need more of that.” It is also about the opportunity to pause, dig really deep, and figure out why it matters to anyone at all. If I study all games and only games, I may be doomed to make derivates.
Otherwise, you never know what may be made.
A Weapon and a Curse
At Project Horseshoe, an invite-only game design conference that takes place in the Middle of Nowhere, Texas, I arrive the first night prepared to introduce myself to the rest of the group. I know most of them already, which is perhaps why we have been asked to choose a weapon to go with our names. We can make one up, but it must describe us and our present state.
“I am Brenda Brathwaite,” I say, “and I wield the Steady Academic Paycheck of Commercial Indifference.” It means that I can make what I want when I want about whatever topic I want without regard to milestones, publisher, financial, ESRB or market pressure. And, wow, is it good! I can research it, create it and explore it based on nothing other than a perceived need, interest or personal whim.
And this, it seems, is also a divide. “C’mon. You’ve seen the stuff they come out with. How much of that is actually commercially viable?” says Jeff. Jeff produced a freelance project I worked on after I’d started teaching. I recalled his comments about academic games.
Maybe none of it, I think. But I poke at that some. A lot of research and art isn’t commercially viable yet, and does it matter if it ever is? Do we care if Hawking’s ideas are packaged at Wal-Mart or Kara Walker’s art installations come in a “make your own at home” sticker format? I don’t. It makes them and their work no less interesting to me. Does a 95 percent on GameRankings make a game any more compelling to the MoMA?
In my three years in academia, I read all the books I wanted to read when I was lead. I researched black characters (and the shocking lack thereof) in games. I explored the interactions of consenting adults in virtual worlds, and I made games about difficult subjects to see if game mechanics could indeed function like paint or photography to capture and then express a difficult emotion. I am now working on the initial prototype of an actual commercial project again, and I am enjoying it immensely, not because it is commercial, but because it is one option I have among many. As my jazz musician brother turned professor told me long ago, do what you love.
It’s not that academia can’t make commercial games. We can, and many academic game developers do. It’s just that the freedom to wonder “what if” has a strong, strong pull.
In the End, It’s the Core that Matters
“It’s finishing that counts,” says Mike. “It’s not so much your ‘what if,’ but the actual development process that entails a million decisions, some that only experience can answer. Finishing is the biggest lesson in the game industry.” And, that, conceivably, is Mike’s killing blow. I struggle for a comparison for a while, but it comes.
My brother, Theo Garneau, the musician turned prof.
He’s working on his Ph.D. dissertation on Gabe Baltazar, the famous jazz sax player. He’s completed over 150 interviews with different people, all transcribed. He’s compiled a massive discography and filmography, unearthed dozens of previously uncatalogued newspaper clippings, advertisements, reviews and critical writings. He has interviewed Gabe himself almost 30 times, and listened to and studied his music for hundreds of hours. Theo hauled cameras to his performances and snapped hundreds of photographs. Though my brother has played with many famous jazz musicians, what he’s doing here matters greatly, though it doesn’t involve him playing a single note himself. In total, his pursuit of this single Ph.D. has taken him five years, and that is faster than average. He need only finish his dissertation.
He crunches. He ships.
So, I see us both, academia and industry, in a large circle encircling a smaller circle called “games.” We approach it differently, we ship different things and we have much to understand about one another. But we have the same core, the same dedication and the same incredible passion for this art form. And in the end, it’s the core that matters.
Brenda Brathwaite is a freelance game designer, professor and Chair of the Interactive Design and Game Development department at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She has been in the game industry since 1981 and has shipped 22 commercial titles. She is presently working on a series of six non-digital games titled The Mechanic is the Message.