The education game

The education game
Michael French

By Michael French

January 15th 2010 at 2:49PM

Skillset game manager Saint John Walker discusses the future

It’s been a busy few months at Skillset since Saint John Walker was appointed its games sector manager.

During his tenure thus far Skillset has accredited three university courses (at Teesside, Sheffield and Abertay universities) – bringing its carefully-selected total to eight – and has also faced accusations that its wide remit 'pushes out' fellow organisations such as the IGDA.

We sit down with Walker to discuss where the body stands today, its future, and how industry can aid academia.

You’ve been in the role for over half a year – how has that period gone for you?
If I say it feels like a lifetime, that might be misinterpreted… [laughs].

As you imagine, the first few months have been about listening and checking Skillset is on the right track, and up to date on the industry’s skills issues.

We’re definitely onto another stage now; a more pro-active impetus on a number of issues.

When you joined Skillset you referenced that there were some clear skill gaps in the industry – in what areas were they, and do you think you’ve come any closer to closing that gap yet?
Well, there is the issue of increasing the quality of Games programmer talent. Helping HE (Higher Education) to do this is one thing, but there’s also work to be done in promoting games as a viable career to school kids who are talented in maths/physics.

That kind of disconnect needs to be solved, Kids at school need to be better informed that if they do maths (often seen as uncool) they can get a job in the (very cool) Games industry.

Better talented school-leavers entering our universities will achieve a lot.

We have a role to assist there at the Careers advice end of things. The STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Maths) issue is a big one, in Games and also VFX, and we’re making good progress here, and that was barely on our radar six months ago. We’re hoping to work with E-Skills and STEMNET on this.

More TDs were, and still are, needed. We’ve moved forward here at Skillset too, but mainly on the VFX side, but this will also impact the Games industry I believe.

Also, one of Skillset’s main priorities across all our ten sectors is Management and Leadership. How do we assist new companies in the skills associated around management? How do we enable established companies to deal with the increasing demands of managing change?

Can you detail the process that goes into accrediting the games courses?
The journey starts on the Skillset website. Download the criteria, fill in the form, send evidence of your course’s outputs. Let us know about things like industry involvement in curriculum development, alumni destinations, staff CVs.

We then get our industry evaluators on the case. They pore over the documentation, and if it looks good we’ll go to Stage 2 which is a visit to the institution to check out resources, separate interviews with students and staff, digging deeper into how various aspects of the curriculum are delivered.

It’s a tough process, and it needs to be remembered that it’s voluntary. Universities are to be applauded for stepping up to the plate.

Industry: support your local Skillset-accredited University. They may not be perfect but they’ve got guts and deserve your attention.

Finally the evaluators recommend who gets accredited at our Computer games accreditation panel, chaired by David Braben.

However, we’ve no ambition to be like OFSTED. We’re trying to impress that accreditation is about a dialogue or conversation with us.

Some Universities shy away because it’s seen as an exam they might fail. We hope every University that deals with us is improved. We know some are looking at our criteria and choosing sections to embed in their courses. That kind of copying is fine by us.

What do courses need to be doing right to get the Skillset accreditation?
Simple things. Speaking with Industry, listening, responding. Some broad brush strokes: for the Game Arts pathway to accreditation, there needs to be good professional standards in life drawing, CGI modelling, texturing, rendering and lighting.

For our Technical accreditation there needs to be high level programming, C++, Maths, compilation and optimisation.

It’s not enough to have these things in your curriculum, the depth at which it is taught is important. That’s why our evaluators are industry professionals.

Do you expect to grant accreditation to more games courses next year?
We’ve avoided talk of a ‘quota’. The criteria we assess with is the industry’s. The numbers game is a dangerous mindset to get into. I know a lot of people would be happy if we got well into double figures (which I think we will) but we also have a responsibility to withdraw accreditation if on inspection, standards at our accredited courses slip below the criteria.

It hasn’t happened because once a games course has adopted the right approach and involved the industry in its curriculum and brought real world experience in the classroom, it takes a lot to want to go back to the old ways.

Accreditation is an ongoing robust process, not a coronation.

It’s also worth remembering we accredit Games Art and Games Programming pathways, and we’re currently consulting with industry on Games Design criteria which we hope to bring online by April.

So there are courses out there which produce great graduates but whom we haven’t got a framework to accredit, and we’re looking at how we signpost these too.

However, accreditation is just one tool with which we assist the industry in getting better, more relevant talent.

You oversee the animation skills area as well – is there anything the games side could learn from the courses you work with there?
I think innovation needs to be more firmly embedded in universities - and I think that is more evident in animation courses.

That’s a gross generalisation of course, but one gets the idea that innovative thinking isn’t such an important issue for the games industry – they want good practitioners for today’s priorities. It’s more of an urgent need.

Once a course gets accreditation, what happens next – are they checked post award to prove they maintain the quality that one them the award?
It’s usually granted for 3 years, which is the length of time it takes for a student to travel through the curriculum.

Like I say, it’s not a coronation for life. We’re currently involved with inspecting and re-accrediting some courses.

This kind of vigilance is expensive though, and the irony is that there is no funding from the games industry- everything we do is possible because of the Film industry funding that supports our overheads and resources at Skillset.

Do you think developers need to be more proactive towards games education?
I think that tax credits and the economy have probably pushed skills down the industry’s priorities.

Courses are only going to get better, and Skillset will also only get better at serving the industry with industry participation.

In a fast moving high octane industry like games it can be frustrating that the pace of change seems slow, and rewards are reaped over the long term. But at the end of the day everyone (Skillset, industry, higher education) wins if we start moving up the world league table again because of how we utilise the skills of our young talent.

Now’s the time to invest time in sorting out higher education – so we’re armed to the teeth with skilled talent as we move out of recession.

Companies like Blitz and Sony are exemplary in respect to education, but smaller companies can get involved in improving education too.

It needn’t be onerous – for instance we’ve just come back from a day at SCEE Cambridge, to meet their designers. By giving up a half hour of their time, they are helping us create a new Games Design accreditation system which will help raise the game of many courses in the UK.

Skillset are happy to broker all kinds of surgical strikes by industry into higher education. Industry can use us as a portal to engage with all the best talent sources in the UK.

Are there any initiatives that specific games courses run which you would single out for being ‘best of breed’ or that you think games studios should participate closer with?
Well of course, Dare To Be Digital. Look out for Bournemouth University and University of Bath’s Centre for Digital Entertainment. It’s about placing PhD talent into Games and VFX companies to work on the companies own agenda, their own R+D issues. Such a simple idea.
Many Universities have great conferences which represent a great forum to discuss and learn. Animex in Teesside. The sadly discontinued SAND festival/conference in Swansea – a great asset for Wales gone! Also Abertay’s NEoN festival.