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11:42am on Friday, 21st April, 2017:

Exciting Times


Well, the games group at Essex University has just been struck by a metaphorical earthquake.

As with all earthquakes, it began with a small tremor.

Last year, the European Research Council awarded a number of €2.5m Advanced Research Grants to best-in-class academics to do with pretty well what they wanted. These are highly prestigious — see the press release for the one Espen Aarseth received. At Essex University, one such grant was awarded to Professor Massimo Poesio, who is the Director of Research in our department (formally known as the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, or CSEE). Officially, I have an eighth share of this grant myself, because Massimo's interests are in using games to acquire data on language use: when he applied for the Advanced Research Grant he added me as a second investigator. Really, though, it's all his work, I'm just a passenger.

So far, this is great news for Massimo (and good news for me, too, as I may be able to finance another trip for myself to Project Horseshoe this year out of it).

OK, now I need to explain something at this point before continuing. Warning: it's mainly pieced-together from hearsay so could well be entirely wrong — treat it as rumour, not as fact. So, last year Essex University increased the pay of all its female professors by three increments, to bring the average for female professors up to the average level for male professors. This was announced with much publicity, and deservedly so: it was generally received as being A Very Good Thing. However, it transpired (and this is the rumour part) that in practice most female professors were still being paid less than the male professor in the room next door, because the average was taken across the university as a whole, not across individual departments. It emerged that professors in science departments at Essex (who are overwhelmingly male) were being paid considerably less than professors in the humanities. They were also being paid considerably less than science professors in other universities.

Back to the story...

Because Massimo was in receipt of one of these super-prestigious grants, he attracted much attention. Research-led universities (such as Essex) are ranked based on how they fare in the Research Excellence Framework, a periodic review that determines how much research money universities receive. It's a positive feedback loop: the better your research, the more money you get, so the even-better your research will become. Someone in receipt of a €2.5m grant is basically a superstar and can expect to be approached by other universities who are head-hunting for talent.

As for what happened next, well to use a footballing analogy: if you have a star player who is the only member of your team to have been called up for the national squad, but his pay-packet is somewhat less than the squad's average, then you'd better give him a rise or he'll be gone the next transfer window.

Massimo was offered a position at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). This is a Russell Group university within commuting distance of Colchester. Now in the past, whenever a professor has been offered a job at a peer-or-better university, Essex has usually come back with a counter-offer. This time, inexplicably, it didn't. Massimo will therefore be starting the next academic year at QMUL.

OK, well that's a bit of a blow (especially as Massimo has the highest workload in CSEE at 155%), but although he uses games, he's basically a computational linguist. His departure would be felt by the games group, but as a tremor, rather than as an earthquake.

What happens next is the earthquake.

Massimo had to discuss his intention to leave with the Head of School, Simon Lucas. Simon is not only Head of School, he's the leader of the games group. He's excelled in both regards — he's done wonders for games at Essex. If you were thinking of setting up a games research group in a Computer Science department at another quality university, Simon would be just the person you'd want.

Queen Mary were thinking of setting up such a games group.

To cut a long story short, Queen Mary managed to poach Simon, too. Furthermore, he'll not just be establishing their games research group, he'll also be their Head of Department. He's taking other core members of the Essex games group with him, along with a bunch of PhD students and probably the Essex component of the IGGI doctoral training centre. There may be more to follow in the coming years, once a games degree has been inaugurated and once colleagues' currently-young children have grown older.

I'm really pleased for Simon, because this is a wonderful opportunity. How often do you get the chance to create your own research group in a top-20 research university? Wow! He really deserves it, and I don't begrudge him his decision to leave at all.

That said, after earthquakes you get aftershocks.

CSEE should be fine. Simon has had to step down as Head of School with immediate effect for conflict-of-interests reasons, but there are plenty of talented individuals who can step into his shoes. They may take CSEE in a different direction, they may not, but it's in good shape and has a large roster of staff; I have no concerns as to its future.

The games group, on the other hand...

When Computer Science and Electronic Engineering merged about ten years ago, Simon and I were told by the then Head of Department that the games degree was being discontinued. Simon said, "we'll see about that" and went over his head to the Dean to stop the decision from being approved. Since then, the BSc has grown in leaps and bounds, and it's now the third-highest recruiting degree scheme in CSEE (around 25% of undergraduates, I think). The subject is also recruiting well at PhD level and pulling in large games-related grants for academics.

Well, it was, anyway. Its future performance is less certain.

A games group is contingent on having members of staff able to teach it and to research it. Simon is taking the core researchers with him, leaving me as the only out-and-out games person left (and I'm not even on a research contract). We have people who can teach the modules that need to be taught, and we have people who are interested in games as a way to help their research in other areas. That's not enough to count as a research group, though. We have some excellent PhD students coming through who would be shoo-ins for junior lecturer positions in this area, but they're still a year and a half off thesis submission so it's too early for them to step into the breach. That's assuming that the vacancies left by departing games people are filled by games people, too: it may be that the new Head of School decides to strengthen or expand some other area instead. Following an earthquake, the primary concern is making sure that the buildings that are left standing aren't in in danger; reconstructing the buildings that have already fallen down is for later, and may not happen at all.

So, where does this leave me?

Well, I could go to QMUL myself if there were something there for me to teach. I could go full time at Essex and try to resurrect the games group on my own (although that would necessitate my gaining a promotion: I have the Professor title because I'm an honorary professor, but I'm employed on a Senior Lecturer contract). I could go back to industry, but to be frank there aren't many games companies who would employ someone in their late 50s despite what the law has to say about ageism — I'd have to set up my own studio. I could become an itinerant lecturer, delivering intensive two-to-four-week lecture series at different universities. I could ramp up my consultancy business, although that's never recovered to the levels it reached before the financial crisis of 2008. I could wind up unemployed.

For the moment, unless someone head-hunts me, I'll bide my time. I'll see who the new Head of School is, ascertain what this means for rebooting the games group, keep teaching and supervising, and make a decision once the dust has settled (assuming a decision isn't made for me in the meantime).

If they take away my title or make me share an office, though, I'm off for sure.

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Copyright © 2017 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).