We talk to universities and education-engaged organisations about supporting and improving UK-educated talent to better prepare the games industry for the impact of Brexit

In Ukie’s annual review 2018, CEO Dr Jo Twist OBE wrote in her foreword: “With Brexit threatening to further restrict access to the highly skilled, it’s never been more important to improve home-grown skills.”

With that quote in mind, MCV decided to reach out to universities and companies involved in education to gather their thoughts on this very important topic and answer these burning questions: can universities step up to fill the potential Brexit gap in talent? To what extent can the UK games industry be supported by UK-educated talent? And what can be done to get as close as possible to being self-sufficient?

Bournemouth University’s head of department for Creative Technology Dr Christos Gatzidis

Bournemouth University’s head of department for Creative Technology Dr Christos Gatzidis

The first issue raised being: should we actually aim for self-sufficiency? “It is difficult to accurately gauge what self-sufficient would be,” Bournemouth University’s head of department for Creative Technology Dr Christos Gatzidis replies. “It is also hard to envisage an eventuality, post-Brexit, where that would be entirely needed or indeed entirely healthy either.”

Mario Michaelides, lecturer in Games Design at Brunel University London, adds: “I believe the UK games industry will survive post Brexit, but survival is not a target that any industry aspires to. The games industry benefits greatly from the EU in terms of employment opportunities, sharing of skills and talent, cultural and diversity enrichment. The creative industries in general gain from the ability to be far reaching and as an academic this plays an important part in teaching our students to be global citizens. Self-sufficiency in this regards is not a virtue, and neither is it coveted. Simply put, the games industry needs to be connected to the host of talent and culture the world has to offer in order to prosper, not just to survive.”

Mario Michaelides, lecturer in Games Design at Brunel University London

Mario Michaelides, lecturer in Games Design at Brunel University London

So maybe being self-sufficient isn’t the goal – but it is important to think about how we can better support UK-educated talent nonetheless. And the path to get there was highlighted by every person who answered our questions: we need to encourage some topics to be taught earlier on, we need more diversity in the talent pipeline and we need more communication between industry and academia to make sure students are industry-ready.

University games courses seem to have largely grown in the past years but that doesn’t mean they’re always able to create industry-ready students. And some of it stems back to the student pathway before uni.

“We’ve built a number of things into our courses to make sure that our students can start on a level playing field since there’s such a big discrepancy in what they may have studied before,” senior lecturer in Games Design at Staffordshire University Nia Wearn says. “But we sometimes note the self-starting aspects you’d hope university students have – applying for things, attending networking events – aren’t there. So we do a lot to build up the confidence of our students where we can.”

Senior lecturer in Games Design at Staffordshire University Nia Wearn

Senior lecturer in Games Design at Staffordshire University Nia Wearn

Wearn highlights one of the main problems here: students not having the background that would give them a better preparation to follow uni games courses. Skills that can apply to games should be taught earlier on in the curriculum: that’s something many in the industry have been trying to encourage for years, Ukie for instance being at the forefront of this fight with its Digital Schoolhouse initiative.

When asked to what extent the UK games industry can be supported by UK-educated talent, Tom Cole, course leader in Computer Games Design at the University for the Creative Arts Rochester, answers: “By all accounts of people I’ve spoken to in recruiting roles, not much.”

He continues: “Several triple-A developers I’ve spoken to say they will have a 30 per cent dip in numbers applying, meaning it will be that much harder to get the right people. As far as education goes – it’s bleak as far as secondary schools are concerned and variable with higher education.

“With secondary schools the arts curriculum is massively under-siege and under appreciated. It seems to me that if you can’t easily put a pound sign directly next door to the subject – for instance economics, maths, business and so on – then this government just isn’t interested.

“Having said that, that’s been the case for the last ten years or so. This is a big problem for games development, which is a fusion between artistic foundations and technical abilities, particularly in the more generalist indie sector. They are forgetting the vast amounts of cash that the creative economy generates in this country every year, including video games!”

Tom Cole, course leader in Computer Games Design at the University for the Creative Arts Rochester

Tom Cole, course leader in Computer Games Design at the University for the Creative Arts Rochester

Cole reckons that the removal of Computer Science decades ago and its replacement with ICT, and since then “the ridiculous haphazard way in how they’re trying to re-establish Computer Science,” is largely to blame for this blockage in the learning pipeline.

He elaborates: “There is little to no education about technical aspects such as programming and certainly no teaching done about games design, production and business elements. I have to be broader in what I look for in a student – persistence and passion, because if I only took students that had previously had a good portfolio of games, I’d have no students!

“Games design should be a fundamental part of the secondary school curriculum. It teaches a mass of social and group working skills and lots of other skills (systems thinking, analysis, research, testing, iteration, product development) that they don’t really get chance to cover in other subjects.”

He adds that “the general level of education about how video games are made amongst the wider population (including avid gamers) is really poor,” especially compared to films and literature.

Gatzidis says that there’s “a significant number of courses in UK higher education in games development which one could argue could support the domestic industry very well.” However, he agrees that there’s a lack of prior knowledge in some topics: “Ideally more students coming into higher education with a stronger maths and/or physics background plus problem-solving and also programming expertise could help, especially for the more technical roles in the industry.”

Marcia Deakin, games partnership director at NextGen Skills Academy

Marcia Deakin, games partnership director at NextGen Skills Academy

Marcia Deakin, games partnership director at NextGen Skills Academy, agrees that the focus is often not where it should be.

“NextGen works with an employer steering group across games, animation and VFX who are facing similar challenges in recruitment. The message, loud and clear, is that education needs to focus on the fundamental skills of art, design, sound and programming. Practically that means a student needs to understand the principles behind a subject, rather than just how to operate software packages.”

TALK TO EACH OTHER

That leads us to discussing another burning question: having a more diverse UK-based talent pool to counterbalance the impact of Brexit.

“We face a number of issues, diversity being one, too many graduates leaving education without the skills the industry needs and also a low take up on apprenticeships which could help fill the gaps at entry level and upskill the existing workforce,” Deakin says. “We need to widen the talent pool and look beyond ‘graduates only’.”

She reckons the games industry should look into how other creative industries are tackling the issue.

“Games companies could do worse than to take notice of the example of Access:VFX. In just over a year a London-centric group of 16 companies have had a national impact. A Diversity and Inclusion agenda has been the driver for Access:VFX. Employers recognise the benefits for creativity and the bottom line in drawing talent from as large as pool as possible. Companies like Ubisoft and Double Eleven have already joined in with Access:VFX. When that translates into regular engagement with students from 16+, the nature and quantity of talent that is work-ready will be fundamentally improved.

“The games industry can be self-sufficient, but it needs the major players to pull in the same direction and plan to create a new nationwide talent pipeline with strategic partners like NextGen. The talent pipeline for the next decade needs to have multiple routes to work including Level 4 Apprenticeships, HNC/HND graduates from vocational courses, top-up degree apprenticeships and graduate recruitment that demands work-ready skills.

“The more employers who can contribute to develop routes to work with us, the more likely that we’ll create a talent pipeline with multiple entry points to work. The graduate recruitment model is already failing to supply enough work-ready recruits and NextGen is promoting routes that will fill the gaps, and challenge universities to address the needs of the industry.”

MD of Aardvark Swift Recruitment and Grads In Games founder Ian Goodall

MD of Aardvark Swift Recruitment and Grads In Games founder Ian Goodall

MD of Aardvark Swift Recruitment and Grads In Games founder Ian Goodall echoes Deakin’s thoughts on apprenticeships and the like: “Other industries are far more open to taking on juniors, trainees, interns and apprentices, but in games it’s tough for studios to justify the time and resource spent on training, and ultimately it’s the sustainability of the industry that takes a hit. We need to be more prepared to take on prospects and provide them with the support and training to bring them up to a professional level.”

Both Deakin and Goodall hint at how those new routes to the games industry could provide talent that is actually industry-ready. But that’s not saying that universities are not trying. Effort needs to come on both sides – employers on one side, academia on the other.

Deakin adds: “The issue is not that there aren’t enough students studying games, the issue is that they are not studying the right things to get them work-ready.”

However, on the other end of the spectrum, Wearn reckons that “uni courses on the whole could do with a wider recognition of the quality of work that is coming out from our graduates – and easier ways to promote this work.”

She further explains: “We do a number of things [to prepare students for a career in the games industry].Throughout their courses we focus them on specific goals, use real world briefs and assignments where we can – art tests or bids, working prototypes and group work. In the final year we have much great focus on practical employability skills and giving credit for integrating with the industry where they can, online or in person. We promote game jams and portfolio workshops to help the students develop portfolios that stand out and we work with employers to do mock interviews. We also don’t shield them from the realities of the industry as we see them portrayed and fed back to us from our contacts. We hope our students go into whichever field in the industry with their eyes open.”

She gives a few tips on how employers could improve graduate hiring: “Make relevant jobs and job requirements transparent – get in touch with course tutors to see if we have any alumni we know might fit the bill for certain jobs you might have, or if we have graduate shows coming up. Also please communicate with us – things we’re doing well with (such as sending students out into the world with showreels and portfolios) and things you think we could improve on. There’s so much conflicting information out there for students and for us as tutors – but if you can help us address specific issues you might be seeing then please let us know. We’re always ready to listen.”

Staffordshire University's graduate show

Staffordshire University's graduate show

She concludes: “So much of the games industry now seems very closed off to students – Discords and Slacks are great for communication, but they can put up barriers to students finding jobs, or having a clear idea of what the industry is actually like. The talent is there, it just doesn’t entirely know where to apply itself.”

Gatzidis adds that Bournemouth University is always on the look out for “opportunities to partner with [UK studios] in funded research or R&D projects in particular, which can then create a long-lasting relationship that can ultimately benefit undergraduate students too.”

This long-lasting relationship between academia and industry professionals is also something Goodall advocates and aims for with Grad in Games. He explains: “Employers need to be more involved in training future generations. Get into the unis and colleges, and provide real studio-backed guidance, use real-life examples to set assignments or give project direction, and get students learning the same tools and techniques that they’ll need in a studio. Work with the universities and course leaders to develop a plan that will leave students with the skills and knowledge you want to see in your studio.

“A lot of studios are great at adopting this into their outreach programmes and own internal training, but there’s many larger studios that are in a position to create a great training platform for graduate talent, but will instead cherry-pick the best couple of students from a course each year and call it a day. That’ll work out fine for the studio, but it doesn’t provide long-term support for the industry and is partially why we keep having major skills gaps all over the place.”

Cole echoes Goodall’s statement, talking about students being disregarded by employers. More communication, more training programmes is again highlighted as the solution: “Many developers rubbish graduates as being useless and there’s a real snobbery amongst some companies about hiring them. It really pisses me off,” he says.

“If they were more professional and gave more thought to training schemes within their company then they and the sector as a whole stand to benefit. I can only think of Ubisoft who are doing this off the top of my head – have a grad training programme. This is what most other sectors do, why can’t games do it?

The NextGen showcase 2018 – an annual showcase where graduates get to present their work to industry professionals

The NextGen showcase 2018 – an annual showcase where graduates get to present their work to industry professionals

“Employers and academia need to have a good conversation about agendas and what each is getting out of it. Often these needs don’t match up, particularly between triple-A companies and unis, and so time and energy is wasted in a bad marriage to begin with.”

However, he tempers his thoughts, adding that it “doesn’t have to be that way,” and acknowledges that “there are faults on both sides.” Talking about a few companies getting in touch recently to start collaborations, he worries about their motivation though: “Most of the time that’s just because they want to hire cheap exploitable workers, not because they actually want to invest in the sector. Notable exception: Rebellion. They just want to encourage the new blood.”

WORKING TOGETHER

Everyone we talked to mentioned how finding the right timing is the bulk of why academia and industry don’t communicate enough, with Cole saying we “just need to work out times and schedules in the year when things can crossover.”

He asks: “When’s a good time business-wise for industry people to take time out to come visit? When’s a good time teaching-wise for industry people to come and speak to students? Matching those up is the first port of call, and it’s sometimes there that things clash.”

A joint effort and everyone pulling in the right direction could lead to the industry’s talent pool being wider and better educated, which ultimately would lead the industry to be better prepared to a post-Brexit UK.

“There is an incredible pool of talent in our colleges and universities. We regularly visit the 11 colleges in the NextGen Skills Academy network and the employers we work with are astounded at what students can create at the age of 16,” Deakin says. “Brexit has sharpened the focus on the talent pipeline and how we fill the skill gaps and shortages we face. Industry and education need to work together practically to address the issues. What we do need to do is work with colleges and universities to support them to teach what we need rather than teach what they know! Companies can have a huge beneficial effect on vocational education in the UK if they act jointly, rather than as individual businesses.”

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