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10:28pm on Thursday, 5th June, 2008:
I was at the University of Staffordshire today, giving the keynote at their inaugural MMOG Fest. This was an event to raise awareness of their new award, a degree in "Multiplayer Online Games" not entirely dissimilar to the one that I was going to put on at Essex until some jerk canned it. The computer games group there has around 500 students taught by about 15 members of staff, covering 10 undergraduate awards and two postgraduate ones. These student numbers are despite the fact that the a third the first-year games intake is kicked out every year for not making the grade.
Frankly, Staffordshire deserves those numbers of students. Computer games is regarded by academics in general as a joke subject, so the only universities that invested heavily in it are those that have a joke reputation among those same academics. This is one reason why nimble former polytechnics have captured the market: Portsmouth, Coventry, Middlesbrough, Nottingham Trent, Bournmouth, Abertay, Derby, Staffordshire — all of them are looked down on by the research-led institutions, yet they all have admirable games degrees. Portsmouth's, which I know best, is superb. Staffordshire has the equipment, they have the software (they've blagged Monumental's MMO engine to use in teaching), they have the support of the university hierarchy. In fact, they only lack two resources: quality students and quality research.
OK, so they do have some quality students, but nowhere near as many as they'd get if their university had a better reputation.
As for research, well there are problems. One of the people speaking was one of the Nottingham Trent pair, who, it seemed, genuinely didn't know he had merely reproduced work that had been done many times before. As a consequence, I only gave him one barrel of my shotgun and pointed out some ways he could use his data positively (eg. comparing what his respondents said with what was said in the Bruckman and Curtis papers of the early 1990s, to show how much/little graphics add to the mix); I also mentioned other areas where there has been very little research, eg. questionnaires for guild leaders, where he might find something of more interest both to his own discipline (psychology) and to MMO developers. The point is, though, he hadn't really read very widely on the subject; I realise I'm risking self-aggrandizement here, but he hadn't even read my book. If you're new to a subject, the first thing you should do is read up what's canon; a PhD supervisor at a research-led institution would insist on this, but at one without such a tradition, well, it would appear that all you get recommended are some papers written over the past couple of years by your supervisor.
Another one of the talks was by a student was doing a master-level degree linking together Myers-Briggs personality, Belbin's team types, and my player types. OK, that's interesting, and although people have tried different combinations of these before, they haven't done all three. The student in question was aware of my book, but hadn't bought a copy and couldn't find one in the university library, so was yet to discover that there are 8 types in the complete model (which might be an easier fit with Belbin's 9 and Myers-Briggs' 16). OK, so I can help him with that, and it is only a masters degree (not a PhD) so it's not as if he's had long to work on it, but that's not what's worrying here. the thing is, if Staffordshire University is putting on an MMO award and they don't have my book in the library, isn't that something of an oversight? It's painfully embarrassing for me to say this, but if people are going to be studying the subject it really can save them a lot of time, despite its being 5 years old now.
The other talks were by Codemasters and NCSoft, and both were excellent. I'd invite both of them to give talks to our games students at Essex if I weren't so ashamed at the small number of them we have.
The conference continues tomorrow, but I had to be back today so I'll miss it. Oh, and it was funded by the games department to the tune of £4,000, which exceeds the amount available for organising such events at Essex by some £4,000.
I expect the MOG award to be a success, especially with the industry contacts Staffordshire has made. Coming at a time when Essex is deciding whether to have a computer games degree at all, it makes it all the more frustrating for me. The Staffordshire people aren't experts in MMO design, but people taking their degree are going to leave knowing more about MMOs than they did when they started, and they'll get good training if not necessarily an in-depth education. I wish them well.
Yes, I am envious. You can tell, right?
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