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5:29am on Monday, 16th April, 2007:

What I'm Doing


"So, what are you doing right now?"

This is a question I must have been asked a dozen or more times while here in the USA. Hmm, it's probably the "or more", come to think of it, given that I had four media interviews here in Minneapolis and one in Bloomington. Everyone gets asked it, it's not just me, but whereas they all have exciting projects to report on, I don't. Given my status as a "world class expert" on the subject of virtual worlds (those aren't my words), this surprises many people and they think I must be doing something in secret. I'm not.

I have a job, yes: I teach. I don't teach my specialist subject, though, and there's no-one else at my university remotely interested in what interests me. Indeed, there's no-one in the entire UK academic system interested in what interests me. Hmm, actually that's not entirely fair — there are students who share my interests, just no academics. Academics have other interests.

This isn't to say that my colleagues at Essex University are antagonistic, it's just I'm somewhat alone there. I was prepared for this, though: my long-term plan, which I explained at the beginning when I joined the Electronics Department, was to institute a degree scheme in virtual worlds (or at least online games). It was going to take a while, but if I could teach enough undergraduates, if I could enthuse the right ones to stay on for PhDs, well my hope was that I could perhaps bootstrap some new colleagues of my own.

I have to say, the Electronics Department was honouring our agreement. Times change, though, and with the merger with Computer Science I lost my proposed course. To be honest, I'm surprised I didn't lose my entire job, given that undergraduate recruitment for computer games is hardly flourishing. Someone has to teach the students who already signed up, though, and that would be me.

Officially, university work is only supposed to take 50% of my time, but in practice it takes a lot more than that — particularly as the course foisted on me last year which I formally asked three times not to have to teach again somehow remained on my list for next year. I have to rewrite it from scratch again because this year's first-year students have already been exposed to some of the material. So, that's another year or much-more-than-50% of my time spent treading water, then (while still being paid for just 50% and only having 50% of an office).

This is unfun.

When I moan to people this, they ask me why I don't leave and go back into development. OK, well once we've established that they're not going to give me the $25m I'd need to create a virtual world as a start-up, the conversation then moves on to why I don't work for some existing company. The short answer to that question is that existing companies already have Chief Creative Officers. Besides, who's making virtual worlds in the UK anyway? We just invented them; there are more in actual development at Indiana University!

The next proposed solution offered up is to move somewhere more savvy, say the USA. If I lived alone, I'm just about frustrated enough to consider this. However, I have a family, my wife has a job, my children are still in full-time education, and I don't have a work permit. I could do it in short bursts, but actual emigration isn't an option. Besides, I already feel I emigrated once when I moved from the North of England to the South, and once is quite enough...

Maybe I should just accept my lot and adapt? I can actually teach progamming and AI, so even when the computer games degree finally slips into oblivion I'm a cheap, handy way to get teaching done so other people in the new department can concentrate on research.

I was thinking about this as I walked down to see the Mississippi River this evening (very slow moving, by the way). I don't want to do what I'm currently doing, but what else could I do? I could write, if I could get my writings published; I could create games, if I could get people to play them; I could pursue my screenwriting, if I lived in Los Angeles and were 25 years younger. Or yes, I could teach. As it happens, I'm pretty good at it, or at least not as bad at it as many of my colleagues. It's enjoyable, too, at least with respect to some 40% of my students (the other 60% ought not to be taking computer games as undergraduates — indeed, some ought not to be at university). It's doable. If I can survive the masochistic tedium of playing World of Warcraft to level 70, I can survive another 18 years ensconced in a comfortable ivory tower a 25-minute drive from where I live.

Walking back, though, I had this picture pop up into my mind of a boat on a river, travelling between cities, transporting goods and people, building up businesses, interacting with a growing population with changing needs. I saw an interface and a game mechanic simultaneously, very clearly, very cleanly. It would work for the Mississippi, but also the Nile, and — oh! — especially the Rhine. Right there and then, in the middle of my morose (you spotted that?) musings, I had something to excite me. It was just too good an idea to let go of before I had it straight. It was only when I started figuring how I could mock it up quickly in JavaScript that I realised what had happened, and stopped.

I'm a game designer, damn it! I want to — I must — design games! How is that ever going to happen when I'm spending my days in an academically isolated environment teaching boring (to me) production methodologies to the four in ten students who care to listen?

It's not. Augh!

What am I doing right now? Vegetating.

Referenced by Rather Too Broken.

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