Not all that long ago, if you wanted to learn how to develop video games, you had to find a way into a tiny college called DigiPen that was nestled away in Vancouver. DigiPen has since relocated to Redmond, Washington, and blossomed along with countless other “game schools” and degrees that have sprung to life over the past decade.
Some of the leading figures in the games industry are displeased about the “generalist” nature of modern game courses, which tend to encourage a philosophy on games rather than break down and teach the actual process of making games–production, art direction, programming, 3D modeling, etc.
Eidos president Ian Livingstone seems particularly bothered about the matter. “[Universities have] crossed out the word media studies and put computer game studies,” he said in a Eurogamer TV report aired earlier this month. “But they haven’t actually had a dialogue with industry. We do not need them teaching a philosophy about games, we need computer science, art and animation.”
Andy Payne, the founder of the budget PC software company Mastertronic Group, believes that there needs to be more open communication between universities and game developers. “I think that’s down to the games industry to properly reach out to higher education, and then higher education understanding what the games industry really needs. It’s not that we haven’t got the talent, we just don’t produce the finished article.”
Are students being misled into believing they’re signing up–and paying for–courses that will teach them how to put together a game when in fact they’re simply going to learn how to analyze and review titles? Should developers be concerned about what these schools are (and aren’t) teaching the industry’s next generation of programmers?
There is definitely some concern about students being misinformed about what they’re actually learning in some of these game schools. The article by GamesIndustry.Biz makes mention of students who were “disillusioned” by said schools, as they were taught theory instead of the actual nuts and bolts of game creation. However, students should also be aware that game creation is hardly something that can be generalized. Though one person can certainly put together an epic game, most students narrow down their interests–animation, programming, the nooks and crannies of artificial intelligence–and study accordingly.
Likewise, developers shouldn’t worry too much about the graduates that are being produced by generalized game schools. An enthusiast who truly wants to be part of the game creation process will find a way–sometimes without the aid of post-secondary education. More than a few people in the industry began their climb as a lowly game tester whose input gradually grew in value.
Then there’s the plain idea that students who sign up for generalized game courses know perfectly well what they’re destined to study, and look forward to it. Alex Doenau, 25, from Sydney Australia enrolled in “Computer Games and Simulation” at the University of Sydney in 2007. He doesn’t have a job in the games industry–he’s currently still in school, working towards a Masters in Journalism–but he appreciated what the course offered him.
“Do film studios really try to have a say in how a film studies course is run?” Doenau asks. “I don’t imagine so, except for possible fierce attempts to make sure that copyright and screening laws are respected. Obviously, university courses are going to vary in content and usefulness. The person who was actually running [my] course never played video games himself, but he still managed to display a real interest and enthusiasm in what we were doing and what we were teaching. He really took to the theory and it was like he was learning it with us as he went along. It was a niche course with maybe only twenty people, and we did it as a sort of round table discussion every week. It was one of the best community experiences that I had at university.
“The course itself used the book ‘The Game Design Reader’, Salem and Zimmerman, ed. It was a hefty tome, approximately 920 pages. Real blunt instrument stuff, and it collected a lot of great articles about stuff that you would have considered and more obscure but essential historical items. It’s the sort of textbook you would revisit years after the fact.”
Doenau says the course was not meant to teach students how to actually make games, nor did it ever disguise itself as such. “[I]t certainly shows students how these things have traditionally worked, and it can show you the way that things are going. But they’re not teaching you how to make games, nor are they attempting to do so.
“Is it elitism on the part of these developers, that only they can possibly know how the secrets of video games passed down from time immemorial? A theoretical course is never going to be the same as a practical one. In literature, in film studies and, now, in game studies, we learn to deconstruct things. That does not mean we can construct them for ourselves–you would not want to see a film made by me–but we can understand how they are made, what we like about them, what we don’t, and what is wrong or right with any given ‘text.'”
Classes on video game theory are likely to become a university mainstay, and will probably always manage to fill seats. As long as students know what they’re studying, and as long as schools don’t mislead students about the degree of skill they’ll walk away with, classes related to game theory will continue to serve well as informative and fun introductions to the industry.