Features// A (Very) Short and Partial History of Games and Education

Posted 12 Jul 2013 15:00 by
Many years ago when I fell through the rabbit hole and by happy accident entered the world of game development, that world looked oddly similar to the one we have now: lots of small studios and individuals making an incredible variety of strange, charming and freaky little games and either struggling to self-publish them or doing deals with larger publishers.

Very few of us had any relevant qualifications, mostly because there weren?t any. Some had taught themselves to code, some had always loved drawing and painting and adapted their skills to this strange new software thing, some just went wild with designs for games which got made because no-one knew you couldn?t do that.

The ?BBC and Spectrum generation? included youngsters fired up by the early machines and the magazines which published game code you could type in and adapt, but also inspirational teachers who passed on their love and knowledge. Gradually, that faded and programming became something only nerds did, unfashionable and hard to learn.

The rise of the consoles gave us unimaginable technical power and stability but also ramped up the costs of making games. Bigger teams followed and with that, a need for specialisation and higher entry level skills. It became difficult if not impossible for most companies to take on relatively unskilled enthusiasts and teach them in-house: once bigger, more expensive games with serious milestones became the norm, we needed people who could make a meaningful contribution pretty much as soon as they started.

Computer Science graduates became much in demand; some studios went further and instituted a ?graduates only? hiring policy across all the disciplines. A plethora of ?games courses? sprang up at universities across the UK.

A few were designed and taught by ex-industry people, or at least with solid input from local developers, but far too many were dreadful, at best rebadged Interactive Media courses which taught no useful knowledge or skills and from which you could graduate with a First but no possibility of actually getting a job in the industry you loved*.

Since then of course, the games ecosystem has changed dramatically. Creative Skillset?s accreditation criteria for games courses mean that the best art and programming courses can be confidently recommended to anyone interested in working in games.

(See this link for all the details.) As the criteria were written (by UK developers) with mainstream console development in mind they?re in the process of being overhauled, but they?re still great benchmarks for lecturers and course designers.

The games industry is, yet again, in the grip of seismic changes. While consoles are still omnipresent, their absolute dominance is over and players worldwide are spoilt rotten by the sheer variety of platforms and games now available. The image of a ?gamer?, an easy description 5 years ago, is now almost impossible to adequately define: almost everyone plays games in some way or other, and sometimes they don?t even know they?re doing so.

We?ve won, right? Our industry is thriving and people are clamouring to come and make the games of the future, right? Well? Sort of. And then again, not really.

With the fall-off in the mostly informal teaching of programming in schools during the BBC era and the rise of the ?black box? consoles where you could play but could not edit or build, a generation of children grew up unaware that games are things they could make.

They don?t know that you can have a whole career making music or sound effects or art or animation for games, and they certainly don?t know how to code or even what programming, that magical blend of creativity and gnarly maths, actually is.

Most of their teachers don?t know either, and that?s partly our fault. For many years we were so cowed by the monotonous media chorus of ?games are violent and evil and they corrupt our children? that we retreated into our bunkers and refused to speak to anyone. That era is now over: even the government recognises that games are a worthwhile and valuable sector of the economy ? and GTA V even got a good review in the Daily Mail!

It?s time for us to speak loudly and proudly about the amazing work we do, the many different careers in game development, how much fun it is to solve problems for a living and what incredible people developers (mostly) are ? and about the great games we make in this country. There?s no shortage of young people who think they want to work in games; but there is a lamentable shortfall in their knowledge of what that means and what skills are needed.

The Video Games Ambassadors scheme is part of the STEM Ambassadors project run by STEMNET, a government-funded initiative whose purpose is to ?create opportunities to inspire young people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths? and also to help support teachers in teaching these subjects in creative and absorbing ways. Games, VFX and the other creative technologies have added Arts to this august subject family to create STEAM (Arts added to STEM).

The Video Games Ambassadors scheme started in 2011 and has attracted some wonderful people doing amazing work with schools and colleges.

Now however, with Computing back on the National Curriculum (hurrah!) and an establishment which doesn?t seem quite sure what contribution art, animation, audio, graphic and game design make to our industries (boo!), we need more people to sign up and go out into the wider world to explain to young people, teachers and parents what it is we do, why it?s so amazingly cool and how they could do it too; and by the way, it is a proper job, look, we have pensions and everything.

Having just gone through the process of becoming a VGA, I can reassure you that it is remarkably painless. You sign up online and you?re then sent a choice of dates for your two hour group induction session. Ambassadors are regional entities, so inductions are held in your region which should mean that you don?t have to travel far to do it.

(Should you move, you simply change region.) You need to take along a photo and means of identification, which is all clearly explained in the helpful emails you?re sent once you?ve signed up.

Once you?ve been through your induction process, which I found really interesting and useful, you wait to get your DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service which has replaced the old CRB check), and within about two weeks you receive your card and a natty little pin which informs the world that you are now a STEM Ambassador! After that you?ll receive regular updates about the activities available in your area, which might be a brief talk at a primary school assembly or someone looking for help to run an after-school club for a term. It?s totally up to you how much you take on.

The two most important things I want to say about the VGA scheme are these: you only have to do one activity a year (you can do more!), and anyone working in the games industry can become a VGA.

That means people in management and PR and HR and finance too, as well as all the lovely flavours of development, and I think this is an important point to emphasise because the next generation really need to know about business development and marketing their games. Let?s not lose the next wave of brilliant British IP to hungry venture capital ?investors??

So I want to finish by addressing all the heads of studios and art, technology and design directors out there: your developers and your studio will benefit from this scheme. It is said that the best way to learn is to teach: please, let your junior developers go and talk to some children about how they got into the industry and the skills they needed to do so.

Let them show the work they?re doing and what a game looks like before it?s all finished and shiny, and talk about what they?re doing on it and how they did it. Pair them up with a more senior developer and watch their confidence grow and their speaking skills improve.

Confidence and great communication have always been at the heart of game development and marketing, but surely never more so than now, and the responses I?ve seen from existing VGAs suggest they find the activities hugely worthwhile for themselves as well as the schools they visit.

Kim Blake
Kim Blake
As part of our relaunch Ukie has put together a portal site which has three main aims: to encourage more people to sign up as VGAs; to help support existing VGAs by sharing resources and best practice; and to encourage more schools to engage with the games industry.

These last two are definitely going to be challenging, so any feedback you have would be welcome. I hope to write further articles on our experiences as we go along. Many thanks for reading!

Kim Blake is the Talent Development Co-ordinator, at Ukie and Creative Skillset

*Absolutely true. See Stephen Yau?s account of his own journey.

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