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10:24am on Tuesday, 10th July, 2007:

Computer Games and Higher Education


There's been some soul-searching in the UK computer games industry recently, on account of how we've slipped from third to fourth place in computer game development, having been overtaken by Canada. The government has come in for criticism for not being willing to give UK computer game developers the tax breaks that other countries give their developers. The government's response is to (re-)propose a Games Academy to train more graduates so they can subsequently head off to the USA and Canada to work.

There is a indeed a problem with education regarding computer games in the UK, namely that it doesn't exist. The reason it doesn't exist is because of the same, age-old problem: computer games aren't academically respectable.

Here's how things stand at the moment. There are basically two types of computer game programme in UK universities: training-oriented and research-oriented. The training courses are, in the main, done at former polytechnics such as Teesside, Portsmouth and Bournemouth, and they do a good job in churning out large numbers of competent programmers, artists, musicians and designers. They're at undergraduate level. Research is more widespread, and occurs at the "traditional" universities. These tend to be at postgraduate level, but a few undergraduate programmes are now coming on stream.

So, if you're a smart wannabe-designer/developer, where do you go? You don't want mere training in computer games development, you want an education in the subject. So, that would mean you'd try to pick a research-oriented university. The thing is, though, that computer game research at UK universities doesn't research computer games. It researches education or artificial intelligence or psychology or sociology or grief management — it researches a whole bunch of things, none of which are actually core to computer games.

People who go on film studies courses may just want to develop the technical skills so they can work in the movie industry, or they may want to understand film-making so they can make films. That's their choice. Imagine if film studies courses worked the same way that UK game studies courses work, though: you'd get the technical skills, but all the research would be into documentaries or acting or viewing patterns — you wouldn't get any research into making better movies. It would be all slipstream stuff.

Yes, we do need to look at how computer games can be used in teaching. Yes, we do need to know how female players are disenfranchised by dysmorphic body images. Yes, we do need to know what intellectual property rights players should hold in creations held in shared virtual spaces. However, above all of this, we need to know how to make better games. Without that knowledge, the rest is moot. Yet nowhere is anyone looking at this. Why? Ultimately, it's because there's no funding for it.

If I want to get a grant to analyse gameplay, where can I go to get it? There's no body that awards funds for research into games as games. If I want to get a grant to pursue automatic quest-generation systems, OK, well I might be able to get some funds from an AI source, but I'd have to couch my work in terms of its benefits to AI, not in terms of its benefit to games. An abstract planning system for general-purpose problem-solving that can barely stack a pile of blocks but does so in an unusual way is perhaps a bit passé but if well-presented it could expect some funding (it might have to use the keyword "robots"). However, a more sophisticated system that has to manage NPC goals in real-time in a gameplay-constrained environment can basically forget it. Games are treated much as politicians treat poor people: engaging with them does wonders for your street cred, but you wouldn't want to have to live among them.

Game design touches all manner of subjects. I've read textbooks on economics, anthropology, screenwriting, physics, ancient and medieval history, management, mythology, programming — those are just the ones on the bookshelf behind me as I type this. You need to know a little about an awful lot to design games. If, to research design, you have to make applications to fund-awarding bodies, though, where do you go? The economics, anthropology, screenwriting etc. isn't ground-breaking stuff; what's new and important and in need of research is the means of combining all this knowledge to make games. That's just on the applied side; where you'd get funds to do fundamental, pure research in games is anyone's guess — maybe mathematics or philosophy sources could be persuaded, if you spoke fluent Mathematics or Philosophy.


If the UK gets its games academy, it should offer not just training but also education. Otherwise, we're producing lawyers who know laws but not jurisprudence, surgeons who know anatomy but not ethics, footballers who can control the ball but can't win a match.

Yeah, I know: what we'll get is a replica of Abertay's training course, plus perhaps some DiGRA high-fliers who study "games for X", where X isn't "their own sake".

The only education-oriented UK university I know of that puts "better games" at the heart of its games course is, embarrassingly, Essex. However, that's just in the area of virtual worlds — I'm the only games researcher there, and that's my specialist subject. I don't know how long even this will last, though: things look grim unless undergraduate applications pick up soon.

Maybe, in 20 years or so, enough people who grew up playing computer games will be in positions of authority for the subject finally to be taken seriously.

Yeah, right...

I've had this rant bubbling up inside me for some time, and was expecting it to bubble some more before it finally burst free. However, I came across something this morning that brought it out today. I noticed on Raph's site that a UK student called Katharine Berry has written a program to play Second Life in a browser. It's text-based, using AJAX. From the screenshots it looks to be a very nice piece of work, and people are already using it. AJAX is a fairly new technology, and this is an innovative use of it that would probably garner a first class final-year project mark at Essex, so I wondered which university she was at.


University? She's still at school. According to her SL teen grid profile, she's 15 ("Katherine Berry" is her SL name). Her blog backs this up. Yet she's already producing work that's better than that of all but one of the games course students who are graduating from Essex this month. Amazing.

So in three years' time, when she finally gets to go to a university, which one should she attend?


Not a training university, because she doesn't need training. Not an education university, because they're all off-topic. Well, Essex isn't, but it might not have a games course by then...

No, if I were advising (the real person behind) Katherine Berry where to go to study, I'd say Imperial or Oxbridge. Don't study games, because the games courses don't study games. Study computer science some place they still have enough quality undergraduates to be able to risk teaching the theory. Then head off to the USA or Scandinavia to study games at postgraduate level.


If UK games courses can't do justice to people like Katharine Berry, we deserve to slip still further in the league table of computer game production.

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Copyright © 2007 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).