Games and academia: Why can't we all just get along?

Industry veteran Ken Fee delves into why game development courses deserve more credit, and support
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[Kenneth Fee currently works as a lecturer at the University of Abertay. He started out in the game industry as a junior artist at DMA Design, working on the Lemmings franchise, before going on to work on titles such as Grand Theft Auto, Medal of Honor, Harry Potter and Star Trek.]

The relationship between the game industry and higher education has always been a strange one. Unlike practically all areas of industry-derived academia, the industry itself does not need their employees to have any certification, qualification or training at all in order to succeed.

This has always put the notion of ‘games’ courses on the back foot somewhat – why come and study a degree for several years, when there is no actual stated or procedural requirement to do so?

Then there’s the whole notoriety of games as a career in the first place – not so long ago parents would weep, children would scream and flee, old relatives would drop their pipes and disown you, at the mere mention of you thinking of a career in games (I know, I was one of these early developers, long before games as a career formed any sort of respectability whatsoever, and I gave up a career in law to do so).

This was similarly reflected in the attitudes of many of the more entrenched or ‘ivory tower’ academic institutions, who could not fathom the value of teaching or researching in the area of something so evidently morally corrupt as computer games - some still fight calling games courses ‘Games Courses’ - instead desperately trying to put a more presentable spin into the title so no one understands what on earth they’re actually studying.

Within this fascinating melting pot of clashing sensibilities, expectations, traditions and cultures, I still seem to be relatively unique in my career as a university lecturer in games education - in that I actually had a full career in game development before becoming an academic, filled with all the successes, failures, laughter and tears that the best part of 20 years can bring.

It does mean though, that in terms of where higher education fits into the games industry, I have had a chance to see pretty much every side – and I have no shortage of developer friends (I use that term loosely!) willing to bend my ear if they think my colleagues or I are wide of the mark in our course delivery.

So, In the hopes that I may offer a perspective that is of use, and perhaps help to further promote the value of what we are trying to do in the higher education sector in regards to the game industry and its future, I would ask you to indulge me for a minute or two while I give a personal perspective on the most common areas of confusion that we see time and time again in higher education games courses and the relationship with industry.

For the eagle eyed amongst you, remember that Law career reference? That’s why I’ve stated this is a personal perspective, dangerous things blogs!

Firstly, I have been quite deliberate to refer to the term ‘Higher Education’(HE) above, as that is what universities are concerned with. In a language and form of distinction that was probably lost on me too until I moved into education, Colleges are FE (Further Education), and are typically remedial or vocationally-based teaching institutions.

These colleges are often incredibly successful and hard working places, facing challenges and successes that many outside the education sector could scarcely believe. In my view though, universities are not teaching institutions. They are learning institutions. The difference may seem pedantic, or even obscure – but to me at least it is very real.

The idea of an HE institution is to support and promote advanced thinking and understanding, lifelong skills that will last far beyond the very few years of directed study a student has with an institution – but they will have learned skills in enquiry, research, experimentation, collaboration and innovation.

The result is that an HE education should be invaluable in developing lifelong skills within a graduate, building upon their own core skills and areas of interest with an additional set of invaluable kills and experiences that they could not gain anywhere else.

This leads naturally to, in my experience, the most contentious issue.

Higher education serves students, not developers

It may not fair to be say that all, but certainly the majority of game developers that I encounter who have an issue with academia, seem to think that the primary purpose of a university course is to deliver to them graduates, tailor made to their own specific project needs and requirements.

This is simply not the case. We serve the students. It is them to whom we are responsible, them we see day in, day out for years, them that we try to guide through all the bewildering choices they inevitably have to make as they develop and grow into a more confident and intellectually reasoning individual.

It is of course logical that in order to do this, we inevitably try to develop and maintain links with industry to ensure our teaching methods and strategies (pedagogical models) are as appropriate as possible, but it is to maximise the student’s own potential that we do this. We are not a government sponsored recruitment centre.

If an industry partner helps us develop strong links with them, and plays an active and collaborative role in the teaching and learning process, then of course it is an excellent result for everyone if the end graduate can be gainfully and appropriately employed as soon as they leave us, but that is only one potential outcome.

Personally, I am just as interested in students exploring other avenues of game development beyond their studies and the different publishing and funding models that are available to them, without perhaps seeking to automatically join a company - though as a point of note, I usually encourage this if appropriate, as the additional experience from the ‘university of life’ that a few years in a large studio can give you, is superb experience too.

That is not to say for a second that I do not understand where such industry expectations come from - it sounds perfectly reasonable that if a graduate student has a degree in, for instance, Game Art - they should have a level of proficiency that matches the expectations that such a title will raise. I was horrified myself recently when a student - completely new to 3D - said that they had liked my module, but could we spend more time on Maya in class because she’d actually had to spend some time at home practising.

Students must bring passion for development

Imagine. The horror. Actually practising at home. That summarised a message I relay to students time and time again - we cannot, in higher education - make you something that you simply are not. I don’t think any educational course anywhere can do that. The students themselves have to bring the passion, or at least the enthusiasm to learn. We can support, develop, help them grow.

We can expose them to new ideas and practices, make them think, challenge, encourage collaboration and deeper understanding of their innate interests and passions - but we can’t make them something just by having them scrape though with bare passes in modules.

In other words, you are not a games artist because you have a set of letters after your name. You are, hopefully, a games artist because of all the skills, innovation, collaboration and aptitude you have developed in earning those letters. A point lost on most.

The clearest example I can give is when I speak to artists or visual design students, I ask them what they did last night. If they were out at a club, part-time job, and so forth, then fair enough, so what did they do the night before that? If ‘I did some art’, ’I sketched out a few designs’, ‘I practised my skills’, or some similar statement doesn’t pretty quickly appear in that timeline then I tell them that they simply aren’t artists.

Possibly harsh, but in my opinion artists don’t do this kind of work because they have to, or because they are made to do so to pass an exam or portfolio module submission - they do it because they love it, it is - quite literally - what they live to do.

The same for programmers, musicians, game signers and all the game related disciplines. In fact, probably the same for pretty much any course of study. If you are going in for surgery, it’s nice to think that the surgeon is actually genuinely interested in his craft, and didn’t just end up taking this career path as he couldn’t get into the course he really wanted to do, and ‘scalpel’ classes was the easiest module to take.

I have, I think it is fair to say, a certain reputation with some students. I am not the kind of lecturer that tells you it will all be okay, that it’s okay to miss that deadline, that don’t worry - barely scraping through a first year module in drawing means you’re absolutely on the right track to being a concept artist.

In higher education, as in many walks of life, you can gain a level of popularity by being everyone’s easy-going friend, but to me, being a true friend in this context is getting students to understand the true challenges they have to overcome, so that they leave us truly informed and mature, not so swaddled in cotton wool that they can’t even fit through the door to the interview.

So, hopefully it reassures those in the game industry that the message I pass to students is that if the only evidence you can ever show of your interest in an area of practice is work that tutors have made you do, then you are fooling yourself.

A university lecturer will take the interest or passion you already do and the passion you have for it, and help you develop and evolve. We will try and help *everyone* that comes onto our courses, even if the most genuine sense of help is to suggest that the area of study is not really what best suits them, and we direct them on a more appropriate path, but we will always try.

Soul destroying industry criticism

Then, something very unfortunate can happen. Something I suspect lecturers see all the time - but the industry rarely does, and from their perspective to be fair, hardly could – is that folk from the industry may come across students who are still in the process of discovering where their actual abilities lie, or are struggling through all sorts of challenges and options to make the personal voyage of discovery to where their true potential actually lies.

The person from the industry tells them that they are simply ‘crap’ or ‘useless’ or of no use to their company - I have seen such exchanges take place myself - that to a student who simply wanted to come to study and learn about an area they were keenly interested in, is the first person from their whole family to ever go to university, and has just had to hold down three part time jobs just to pay the bills.

It can be soul destroying for them.

We will come along again, try and translate the industry feedback into a constructive or positive developmental experience, and help them move on.

In this context, the course I currently run is a Masters postgraduate course in Professional Practice of Games Development. It is 52 weeks long. Recently, an industry representative tore into a class who had presented their work to them, with the professional proclaiming loudly that this work was of a far inferior standard to the students they had seen previously.

While I thought it was of value for the students to see that perspective - how they may genuinely be seen from an industry perspective at that point in their studies - the professional arguably missed the whole point. This was week 12.

They had previously only come along to see graduates, who had successfully completed the whole 52 weeks. They actually had a lot left to learn in the next 40.

At the very least, by the time of graduation, every student will have grown and learned. That is what we help them do. If the students have engaged, studied and opened themselves up to all the opportunities and values that their higher education has offered them the results can be excellent, they can go on to great things - but the students have to come to the party too.

Do employment rates apply?

I remember years ago, when I was still in the industry but acting as an Industrial Advisor for a local University, the board of directors of that institution demanded that the employment rate for their game or creative courses should be the same as that for their Law and Medicine courses. I think this missed the whole point.

The traditional courses such as those mentioned require university degrees to practice, so naturally employment rates will be very high - as the supply of staff can come from nowhere else. As indicated in the beginning of this piece, that is obviously not the case for games.

The employability of a graduate from any creative course will demand a far more eclectic range of factors than mere technical ability or a qualification (which, given enough time, is usually a simpler goal to achieve), and talent and passion are elements that are core to that success. The very least that any student will gain from higher education, is an understanding of that reality.

The explosion of games courses - globally - was inevitable, given the staggering popularity and pervasive nature of games in society today. I am in no doubt that many of these require development, support, time to develop.

However, it is very much like the industry itself - no one sets out to make a poor product, and no course sets out to fail students. I think personally that every games course - if related to the industry of games especially - absolutely requires experienced professional developers on the teaching staff. In this context, I mean experience in terms of completed projects, released to the public.

I have seen external advisors to HE academia who have been in the game industry for five years, but have never seen a game developed to completion. And while their experience may be very useful, it is inevitably potentially flawed or incomplete.

These staff must be supported by all the other type of lecturers that breathe variety and innovation into how the subject is viewed - the theorists, the researchers, the psychologists, the business analysts - they can all bring a different perspective to the subject, and allow students to develop their own perspective to the industry.

In tandem with this though, it is absolutely vital that courses have strong industry links as even the most experienced ‘ex’-industry lecturer will start to lose touch with current practices - though many of us have stayed as contractors or freelancers, which has the effect of not only keeping our skills up as much as possible, but allowing us to focus on the fun bits of game development, without being present for any of the politics or boardroom meetings.

In summary then, I would hope that the relationship between games education in the higher education sector and the game Industry continues to improve. I have no doubt that there is good will on both sides, but what is often missing - completely understandably in many ways - is a mutual appreciation of what each other’s goals actually are, and the challenges they face.

When I was in the industry, we looked on academia as a source of ‘free labour’ sometimes (albeit with other value for the students in terms of experience). The HE institutions however, saw us as a source of research funding - so it never really worked as the industry was trying to save money, and HE was trying to get money.

Fortunately, I think there is a much more egalitarian attitude developing now, with folk on both sides of the educational divide being keen to help one another in the appreciation that there is value beyond just the purse strings.

Going forward, what I would ask is that of those in the industry who remain entrenched or vocal against the value of higher education in this area - help us. Help us to support our students, don’t snipe or paint all courses as useless or not fit for purpose, don’t ignore pleas for collaboration or support.

Why not contract your local institution and see if they’re keen to hear from you.

I can almost guarantee that they are.