Scotland in focus: Education

Scotland in focus: Education

By Louis Natanson

October 21st 2011 at 8:01AM

[In association with Abertay University] Louis Natanson looks at the UK's industry education

When the chairman of Google warns that the UK is ‘throwing away your great computer heritage’ it’s time to sit up and take notice.

Eric Schmidt is right. Education from school level through to university needs to embrace both art and computer science, and create graduates with a thorough understanding of how different subject areas overlap and interact.

Scotland has a great example of how to do this, benefiting both the game development industry and aspiring students.

At Abertay University, the home of Dare to be Digital, we do things differently. Artists and programmers work together to create games; not dry coursework assignments.

Our industry, and the economy, need graduates who are productive from day one in a business. That might be someone else’s company – or their own.

SKILLS FOR THE FUTURE

The excellent Livingstone-Hope ‘Next Gen’ review set out what the UK needs for its video games and visual effects industries to lead the world. A key recommendation is to roll out Abertay’s Dare to be Digital model of workplace simulation nationwide.

Why this works so well is that it blurs the boundaries of traditional education and on-the-job training. Our approach to education is a living, breathing thing that is constantly evolving as we work with industry to meet changing skills needs.

It all started with DMA Design legends David Jones and Russell Kay approaching Abertay University in the ‘90s, arguing that Dundee’s emergence as a major force in computer games needed a bigger talent pool to thrive. After Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, it was clear Dundee had talent. It just needed more.

As the world’s first computer games degrees, Abertay’s courses were always intended to be different: a mix of tough academic standards, a focus on hard maths and physics, and an introduction to the challenges of working life, where artists, audio engineers and programmers need to collaborate harmoniously.

It may sound obvious, but this industry-focused education remains rare.

DARE TO BE DIFFERENT

Why is the Dare to be Digital model of education so different? Why are Dare contestants and Abertay graduates such a keen target for recruitment?

First and foremost, their real-world experience sets them apart. Too much education is focused just on a single subject. Implicit throughout our educational system is the idea that subjects are distinct, and that art is therefore separate from maths and physics.

What the game development industry and the economy need is the complete opposite of this, as Google’s boss says.

Dare to be Digital distils a production cycle down to just nine weeks, pushing student teams to deliver fully playable game prototypes to a fixed deadline.

Their prototypes then go on display to the public, engaging students with user testing and the simple commercial truth that great ideas aren’t always great business. The audience must be thrilled, excited and engaged to buy your product.

Our Professional Masters degree takes this idea one step further – scaling up the Dare experience to a full year.

Tutors act as mentor and business client, setting commercial briefs. The teams manage themselves, just as if they were running a small studio.

What we’ve seen from years of students going straight into the industry is this approach works brilliantly. Everyone benefits.

THE NEXT STEPS

Research firm Gartner predicts that global spending on games software and hardware will jump from $67 billion in 2010 to $112 billion in 2015. How can the UK take more than its fair share of that massive increase?

Skills are central to this, alongside cultivating a more entrepreneurial culture, improving the tax environment, and increasing access to angel investors and venture capital right across Britain – not just in the south of England.

Engaging education right across the age range is critical. Schools in the UK have lost touch with our computer heritage – proficiency in Word and Excel will not make us world leaders again.

But David Braben’s admirable Raspberry Pi project to bring USB-sized computers into schools could.

Access at home and at school to ZX Spectrums from Dundee’s Timex factory, along with an after-school club, launched two of the biggest game franchises the world has seen – Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto.

Just imagine what bringing programmable, portable computer to every schoolchild could do.