BREAKDOWN! Part 2: Livingstone-Hope and Games Education
Heroes Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone
Recently I was treated to a livetweeted report from the Edinburgh Interactive Festival by the fragrant Cara Ellison. Among the sessions was one by Ian Livingstone, who as far as I could tell was rehashing the conclusions of the Livingstone-Hope review. In a nutshell, the report claims firstly that the UK games industry is facing a skills shortage, so the government need to do more to encourage kids to study subjects like computer science and maths, and secondly that there are a lot of degrees in game-related subjects that don’t teach the skills that the industry requires.
The issue I have with the Livingstone-Hope report is that it leans too heavily on the idea that universities should train people for their future careers. In some industries/subjects this sounds obvious – I wouldn’t feel very comfortable being operated on by a self-taught surgeon – but in the case of games I think there are a few reasons why it shouldn’t be so focused.
For one thing, according to the report’s figures (page 49), the UK produces around 1,500 ‘games graduates’ every year, while the UK games industry only hires a couple of hundred new graduates across all degree subjects. This means the vast majority of games graduates (over 90% in 2009) do not get jobs in the industry! Even if all of their courses suddenly started teaching industry-appropriate skills overnight, there’s no way the industry could cope with that kind of surge. And if 90% of their students aren’t going to get jobs in the games industry, don’t universities have a responsibility to teach them skills that are more transferable? An education that can be applied not just to games, but to other areas of life as well. Otherwise they’re just raising the stakes as the students gamble tens of thousands of pounds of borrowed money on a three-year vocational course that’s unlikely to lead to a job.
I think there’s also some confusion over the value and purpose of game studies, as opposed to game development. Judging from the report, it sounds like game studies – as in studying theory, as with film or literary studies – are not valued highly by the industry, who would prefer graduates to have technical skills in programming and the use of editing tools. You might call this the difference between ‘training’ and ‘education’. I have an education in economics, but I wasn’t trained to be an economist; if I’d been studying on an ‘industry-led’ accountancy course (which is where I saw my life heading as I left high school), I wouldn’t have had the freedom to write about player behaviour in virtual economies, or the nous to transfer these abstract theories into the field of game design.
The very fact that game studies exists as a degree subject is a mark of the increasing cultural relevancy of games. And while game studios will always need strong technical capabilities, surely it makes sense to invest in a mixed basket of skills, including theory and philosophy? I could also make the argument that design theory remains relevant to development over a much longer period of time than training with a particular tool, but considering most graduate jobs in the games industry only seem to last about 12 months, that’s probably not going to interest anyone.
I think the problem is that the review’s findings are based on the requirements of the industry as it currently operates – the kind of graduate hires required to enable a culture of low pay, temporary contracts, crunch time, and frequent burn-out. Their requirements are biased towards maintaining this business model, rather than improving it. The most immediate example is that graduates need industry-grade practical skills because studios want to minimise training costs – if you think this is unavoidable, consider how many graduate schemes in other sectors ask for a 2:1 degree in any subject and do all their training on the job. Even if industry recruiters restricted their search to relevant degrees, I don’t think training should be considered unreasonable.
I’d like to add that I don’t disagree with everything in the report! Certainly I’d like to see a more advanced level of Computer Science taught in school – as I’ve said in some of my older posts, I first became interested in programming when I was 13, but had no formal learning opportunities until the very last year of high school. Also, although I’ve been through an excellent postgrad course in design theory, I bypassed the kind of undergrad courses examined by the report, so it’s quite possible that a lot of them are just plain inadequate – as ever, my internet soapbox opinions should be taken with a pinch of salt. The undergrad courses I am familiar with include those my friends studied at Abertay and Teesside, both of which are widely accepted as excellent places to study game design and development; I might add that half of these friends have burned-out and quit the games industry within their first 3-4 years.
An Alternative View
Flashback (Amiga version)
If the industry wants more children to study computer science, digital art, and other game development skills, I think they could start by making games that inspire them to do so. I’m reluctant to draw up a big argument based on my memories of playing games 20 years ago, but when I was young I played games like Populous and Flashback, and judging from the current sales charts it looks like kids today are playing games like Just Dance and Lego Harry Potter. I’m sure Just Dance is a lot of fun, but I don’t believe for a second that it will open anyone’s eyes to the magical potential of games the way Flashback can; at best, it might open the players’ eyes to the magical possibilities of dance.
Speaking from my own experience, the reason I became interested in making games was because I loved exploring these strange new worlds, and I wanted to experiment with making my own. I used to play a lot of Games Workshop games when I was young (a company founded by Messrs Jackson and Livingstone, pictured above), and they taught me a lot – to this day I credit Warhammer as the main reason why I have such a good grasp of probability and optimisation, as well as teaching me a lot about strategy and player psychology. The thing you need to understand here is that Warhammer, and particularly Warhammer 40,000, has a pretty dull setting! But Games Workshop have also produced a whole load of weird spin-off games – Blood Bowl, Necromunda, and Space Hulk to name a few – that looked at these generic fantasy and sci-fi worlds from spellbinding new perspectives.
Unplanned Games Workshop Digression
The microcosmic detail of a game like Necromunda carries a great deal of weight when players understand its position within the Warhammer 40,000 universe. The whole game takes place in the dystopian slums of Hive City, in which gangs of impoverished thugs battle for control of toxic waste dumps and jury-rigged power generators. Hive City is situated at the base of the towering arcology of Hive Primus, and serves as a proxy battleground for the political conflicts of its affluent, elite society – most gangs are patronised by one of the hive’s six ‘noble houses’, who confer particular tolls and boons on their chosen bands of goons. But Hive Primus is just one of many such arcologies on the planet called Necromunda, and Necromunda is just one remote planet within the galaxy of war and strife portrayed in Warhammer 40,000.
For anyone who has played Warhammer 40,000, especially if they’ve taken part in the big narrative campaigns that Games Workshop often run over the summer holidays, a gang fight between two dozen juveniles in the Underhive sounds totally insignificant! When you’re used to thinking on a scale of planetary invasions, of feuding ancient gods that can destroy whole civilisations in the blink of an eye, of the rich cultures and histories of all those alien races, it can be hard to see why anyone would care about which gang controls an old slag heap in a forgotten slum somewhere. I think that’s the beauty of Necromunda’s setting – it puts a fine grain on the Warhammer 40,000 universe by giving players an insight into the day to day lives of ‘normal’ people, away from the military campaigns of hulking space marines. But it also ignites players’ imaginations with the lofty notion that your gang might one day hustle their way out of Hive City, up through the Spire, and into the stars beyond – not just a vague endgame concept, but a sprawling, living universe that hobbyists are familiar with.
An Alternative View, Continued
In my opinion, few modern, mainstream video games possess that kind of magic. Instead, we’ve become channelled by market research towards a handful of specific genres – gritty shoot-em-ups, annually-iterated sports franchises, needlessly long fantasy RPGs, and free-roaming action games where you cruise around a city beating up inconsequential mooks. Childhood favourites like Sonic the Hedgehog have somehow evolved into games like Shadow the Hedgehog, in which Sonic’s brooding, angsty, morally-ambiguous clone runs around a city while shooting things with guns. What the hell, guys?!
It’s sad when studios appear to design new games by rehashing the popular innovations of industry leaders like Valve, Rockstar and Blizzard, but what really infuriates me is the way the industry’s marketing wing, by way of the specialist press, promote this uninspired tat as the cutting edge of game design. All those professional interviews and copy-pasted press release news stories, that focus on trivia about the number of guns or levels in the game, help to push this agenda – they teach readers that these are the questions that matter, that these are the terms by which game design should be judged. Here is an entirely unstaged example of what happens when a games journalist asks their fans for interview questions ahead of a trade show:
If the games industry is suffering from a creative drought, could this not be part of the problem? Not only because it encourage young gamers to think about game design with boneheaded simplicity, but because it signals to kids with natural creative flair that videogames can only be about a restricted list of subjects like guns, cars and kidnapped princesses – lacking the scope for self-expression found in film, literature, art or music. When the industry puts shallow design on a pedestal it sends out the message that games are shallow by nature!
And why does this happen? I would say it’s because production and marketing costs have grown to the point where publishers (and hence also developers) cannot afford ‘risk’. If you are in charge of a project that will cost tens of millions of dollars and three years to produce, you can’t afford to gamble on whether the audience will appreciate wild new gameplay ideas. Given the choice between developing an experimental new feature or duplicating an idea from last year’s Christmas best-seller, it makes sense to copy that which has proven successful… doesn’t it?
Not Such An Alternative View
Here is a good little quote from the Livingstone-Hope review that I will provide out of context:
“70 per cent of course assessors report a poor or unrealistic understanding [among students] of what working in the video games or visual effects industries actually involves.” – Livingstone-Hope Review, page 30
From both my time job-hunting and trying to arrange things for DarkZero, I have a lot of experience when it comes to being ignored by industry representatives. I sympathise with the students who think working in the industry is a lot like working on personal projects at home, but I can also see the wisdom in games companies keeping secrets – I work for a tech company and we certainly don’t go around talking about our methodology, or projects that are still in development.
But obviously the only people who can talk about the workings of the industry with certainty are people inside the industry – something to bear in mind while you read this article! If the industry need students to have a better understanding of what these careers involve, they have no other option but to take responsibility for that themselves. I thought this might be another wry observation that the report overlooks, but it turns they’ve already got it covered:
“The industries need to be more strategic in the way they engage with schools, providing better resources for teachers and career advisers, giving young people exposure to industry role models and developing a new national schools competition.” – Livingstone-Hope Review, page 6
The only thing I would add to that is that is that they shouldn’t only focus on schools and students, but also just be more open about the practicalities of making games in the wider media. Let it soak into public awareness! Not just to inspire kids, but to show to their parents that making games is challenging, responsible and rewarding – a good, honest career for their children to pursue.
If game developers want the general public to have a better understanding of how games are made, they should really start packaging special features like ‘behind the scenes’ features, commentary and development blogs in with their games as standard – not tucked away on a forgettable bonus disk as part of an overpriced limited edition release. In case any games industry execs reading this think that’s a dangerously novel proposal, don’t worry: DVDs have been proving that stuff is popular for over a decade now.