Former Eidos chairman and Creative Skillset Games Council chair Ian Livingstone CBE on why the industry workforce needs to speak out about their skills and training needs

Demand for computer literate games professionals far outstrips supply

I’ve always had a critical approach when it comes to the way we educate our children. I left school with just one A-level – a grade E in Geography. I can’t say school was particularly fulfilling for me as it was mainly about learning dull facts by rote, mostly long forgotten. That was in the 1960s. Since then I have always felt there had to a better way to engage with children in school, giving them know-how as well as knowledge, encouraging them to be motivated self-learners and problem-solvers.

The question of how we educate our youngest generation is as relevant today as it was in my day. It’s especially important in the creative sector, where jobs are developing as fast as the technologies that sustain them. The games industry has become an important sector in the global creative economy.

A report by DFC Intelligence in June this year estimated that the global game industry will generate $100 billion in revenues by 2018. And according to a recent report from NESTA and UKIE, the UK’s games industry could be worth as much as £1.7bn – double all previous estimates. There has been a recent explosion in the number of new games companies.

The industry is growing by 22 per cent year-on-year, with over 1,900 games businesses currently operating in the UK. Everybody is playing games on all manner of connected devices: male and female, young and old, from all social backgrounds. It’s clear that our young people need the right skills to be able to contribute to the UK’s games industry, so that Britain can compete on the global stage.

Britain’s games companies rely on computer-literate young people with strong coding and creative skills. But there is a national shortage in computing expertise beyond the games industry, where demand for these skills in the UK far outstrips supply. Employers are still sometimes forced to look overseas for talent.

My five Ps to create a great British games industry are Perception, Property, Pipes, Pounds and People. Perception means more positive coverage in the media to let parents know that the games industry just might be a great career option for their children. Property means retaining ownership of intellectual property to build value. Pipes means super high speed broadband to enable distribution and consumption. By pounds I mean better access to finance. And by people, I mean a skilled workforce.

That’s why I’m supporting Creative Skillset, who are currently undertaking major research called #PlayYourPart14. They want to know the career paths people have taken into the industry. Perhaps you came in via television, animation, music or none of the above – whatever, we need to know how you got the job you’re doing right now, and what you need to keep your skills up-to-date.

#PlayYourPart14 is for developers, designers and producers, and also employers who want to make sure their staff are skilled in the latest technologies and get the support they need, whether they are a small team running out of a garage, or a multinational with a significant UK workforce. Ours is an entrepreneurial industry, with 95 per cent of games companies operating as micro or small businesses, so today’s games developers need to learn business skills in order to scale and realise their full potential.

The survey is open until 21 November and you can take part here.

The right skills and training start with the right approach to elementary and secondary education in schools. I began campaigning for coding to be included in the national curriculum in 2011, soon after the launch of Next Gen, the review I co-authored with Alex Hope, published by NESTA. We completed a review of the whole education system as it relates to games and visual effects. The UK industry was losing its edge, partly because children were being taught office skills instead of programming in ICT lessons.

For the past 30 years, ICT had been teaching young people how to use technology, but not how to make it, which meant that children knew how to play a game like Angry Birds, but not how to create it. In effect they were being taught how to read but not how to write. In his MacTaggart lecture in August 2011, Eric Schmidt spoke of his shock in learning that the nation that had produced the world’s first computer, the Colossus, did not include computer science in its school curriculum.

Digital making skills are vitally important in a world that has become exponentially reliant on technology. So with backing from UKIE, we established the Next Gen Skills coalition, a partnership of companies and institutions that shared our concerns, including Google, Facebook and Microsoft. I started campaigning, speaking, lobbying. This year, we had success: the new computing curriculum was introduced to schools in September, replacing ICT, and bringing with it a real focus on coding and computational thinking. This is a world first and could be transformational for the country.

During the Next Gen campaign I got the idea for a new kind of school. After leaving Square Enix last year, I set up the Livingstone Foundation and applied to open a free school that will utilise problem-solving and games-based learning within the curriculum. I want to open the school in Hammersmith, the same borough where Steve Jackson and I opened our first Games Workshop shop in 1978. Today some of the world’s largest creative companies like Disney, Fox and EMI are situated in the borough, so the opportunities for young people are significant.

Playing games is fun and entertaining, but the gameplay experience is also educational in that it combines a broad mix of problem-solving, decision making, intuitive learning, trial and error, logistics, analysis, management, communication, risk-taking, planning, resource management and computational thinking. Games stimulate the imagination and encourage creativity, curiosity, social skills, concentration, teamwork, community, multi-tasking and hand-eye co-ordination.

Games allow players to fail in a safe environment without being punished for their mistakes. Who wouldn’t want their children to learn and practice these skills whilst being entertained at the same time? Why can’t learning be fun? Games skills equals life skills.

So whilst my school will have a broad and balanced curriculum, covering all core subjects, we will also use computer science and games-based learning to give students a deeper understanding of each and every topic. We want our students to be great communicators and learn how to problem-solve rather than just how to pass exams.

We want to educate children for jobs that don’t even exist today. The school could open in 2016, and I want to use it as a blueprint for the launch of more schools across the nation, to inspire the next generation of video game developers and creative entrepreneurs. I believe computer science is the new Latin as it underpins the digital world in which we now live.

As often happens with new industries, policymakers took a while to recognise video games as an economic and cultural powerhouse. During the noughties, there were serious concerns about the UK’s decline in the global games development rankings, as a consequence of the generous subsidies for video games development available overseas (particularly in Canada), and severe skills shortages. Policymakers have finally introduced tax relief for the production of culturally British video games. We now need to make sure we develop and retain the best talent here in the UK too.

You can take part in the Creative Skillset Creative Industries Workforce Research here. The deadline for filling in the survey is November 21st.

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