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11:23am on Friday, 18th May, 2007:

A Job in the Industry


In my capacity as external examiner for the University of Portsmouth's computer games degree, I have to look over their course materials in order to see if they're up to scratch. A CD arrived earlier this week, and this morning I looked at what they'd sent me.

Ye gods! What a great course! They teach far more than we do at Essex, they ask more of their students than we could ever ask of ours, and there are some modules there so good I'd like to sit in on them myself. The always-were-universities, such as Essex, have a rather snobbish attitude regarding the former-polytechnics-now-universities, such as Portsmouth, in that the former see themselves as educators to the latter's trainers. If you want an education in computer games, you come to us; if you want training, you go to a former poly. Now whereas this is indeed the case for many former polytechnics which have cobled together computer games degrees opportunistically from bits of other degrees, I have to say that there's so much taught in the Portsmouth course that it goes way beyond training and delves deep into education. People are learning things there that would not just get them a job in the games industry or even a related industry; I can see some going on to become lawyers and entrepreneurs on the back of the meta-skills they've picked up.

The only advantage that a university like Essex has is our emphasis on research — we can teach things that come directly from our own research, rather than having to pick it up second hand. This means we attract a better quality of undergraduate, which in turn means we don't have to be quite so laborious in our teaching (ie. our students learn quicker). That's changing, though: I saw some very high quality work by some individuals at Portsmouth the last time I was there. Some of my own students are good enough to do PhDs, and whereas in the past I would have doubted that to be the case for Portsmouth's, they're getting their act together year on year, and now I'm fairly sure they do have undergraduates of that level. Heaven help us if they can raise the bar on their recruitment.

The other thing about research is that although it's important for delivering high-quality education in most disciplines, academia does not lead the way for computer games. Seek out an academic interested in computer games and you'll find that actually they're not interested in better games, they're interested in better AI or better education or better psychology or better sociology or better anthropology or better anything-but-games (in the UK, this is — Scandinavia is way ahead of us here). Almost all the research done on game design is industry-based, not university-based; I'm one of the few university researchers who works in games because I want better games — and I'm not actually paid to do research, I'm only paid to teach. Thus, although the games-specific lecturers at Portsmouth don't have PhDs (they're working on them), they do have their finger on the pulse of the games industry and as a result have a much better idea of what the latest thinking is than "Have you heard of this new kind of game called Second Life?" traditional academics. When it comes to computer games, many academics seem to be one step down from judges in their lack of engagement with the real world.

With the reorganisation of its Electronics and Computing degrees now well under way (following the departmental merger), Essex is aiming not to compete directly with the former polytechnics in training. Rather, it's offering a more rounded education: you don't even have to decide whether you want to do games, AI, robotics, software engineering or IT until after the first year. This sounds good, because many 18-year-olds don't know what they want to study at university. However, I'm a little concerned: we won't capture the ones who can't decide between computing, maths and physics; we won't capture the ones who can't decide between programming, design or animation. We're in between. The role of the computer games course seems set to be one of attracting nascent software engineers who like the idea of games but aren't sure they want a career in such a low-paid industry, and who therefore switch to a traditional programming degree after a year (in the same way that many would-be astronomers wind up doing traditional physics — it draws in the crowds, but they soon think better of it). That doesn't seem to me to be the best foundation upon which to build a new course. Still, we do have some exciting stuff to put in it, particularly in the field of virtual worlds.

Damn it, though, Portsmouth are doing almost everything right!

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