Lecturer and senior designer Justin Parsler on why teaching is integral to the future of games development
Games education comes in for a lot of flak, usually in the form of badly informed pieces in the mainstream press inspired by some developer moaning in a bar somewhere.
This article could directly tackle those criticisms, but is not going to. Instead, writing as a person who has lectured for five years, spent his life in the industry and still works as a senior designer, here are some interesting things I have found to be true since starting my academic and teaching career.
Game design is a separate discipline: I have found that game design is not the same thing as coding, nor as animation, although usually involves both. The creation of a set of rules that will create an experience for someone that wants to have (and will pay money for), which will work on whatever platform has been selected, is both an art and craft unto itself.
You can teach game design: I know this, because I have been doing it for years, even though I did not initially believe it could be done. Really, I should have worked it out sooner, because you can teach almost everything else. Game design is not special. Of course, any number of game designers did not need to be taught and I certainly never was, but anyone, no matter how talented, can benefit from good instruction.
When we talk about ‘teaching’ here, at least as far as our approach at Brunel University goes, we mean ‘practice in a safe environment’. We get students to make games, pitch games, play games and think about games. We advise them. We can tell them what has worked in the past and what they might try. They get time and space to experiment.
After my experiences as a schoolboy and undergraduate, I would hear the word ‘teach’ and assume a series of dull lectures. Modern games education, as I discovered when I came to Brunel, is not like that: it relies on getting students to make games.
Theory is useful: many games courses, ours included, teach theory. Theory is useful in ways I never believed it would be before I learnt any. Theory, I have discovered, is not a rarefied thing that frowning old men in ivory towers discuss over musty books but a living, vital thing that breathes new dimensions of meaning into the world around us.
I use theory in my own commercial work all the time and, in fact, can barely now remember how I got along without it. Being able to critically analyse games that you are working on with a dispassionate eye – though without losing the passion – helps me to stay true to vision, avoid feature creep, look at a game through the eyes of a variety of players, work out where data points would be useful, analyse metrics, structure compelling narrative… the list goes on.
Above all though, theory has started to allow me to understand how games create meaning. This is vital in the design of games, because people care about things, and pay for things, that have some meaning to them and the processes by which people ascribe meaning are complex and tricky to get at.
I would love to give more concrete examples here but those frustrating NDAs prohibit, since the results of this stuff are genuinely commercially valuable.
Education and training are different: in brief, training teaches you how to do something, while education teaches you how to learn how to do anything. Universities are about education, not about training.
We teach students what could be called ‘hard’ skills, as well as ‘soft’ skills, which are just as important. Universities are more interested in teaching people how to learn to use any tool, rather than just how to use 3D Studio Max, how to communicate anything rather than just a game idea and so on.
At Brunel, we educate by teaching skills (training), but it is the education that matters more than the skills. I find nowadays that I learn new stuff much, much faster than previously and, as I have to keep up with a fast-paced industry, this is a real boon.
Universities are responsible to their students, not to industry: the Livingstone- Hope Review, an excellent document in so many ways, indicates that since there are few jobs available in games, students should be trained very narrowly in order to maximise their chances of getting one.
I disagree with the review on this point. If there are few jobs, then students should be educated broadly because they may end up doing something else. As it has turned out, most of our students end up with jobs in games, but this is not the case for most courses.
While it’s true that any developer wants a large pool of highly trained, specialised workers to hire from, this is not a very good way for a university to serve its students as a whole. We need to plan for both possibilities: that the student may work in games, or may not.
This is not to say that academia should or does ignore industry, because we want our courses to be as good as they can be. This mean liaising with people working in the commercial sector.
We want our students to get jobs and that means teaching them things industry will find useful. Most university courses are crying out for industry help and advice. We are lucky at Brunel because we have many industry affiliates, but most courses are not so blessed.
If you are a developer who wants to influence the direction of games education then approach a local university to see what you can do to help. Softly-softly works much better here: approach a university as a developer who wants to work with that university to make games education better and you are likely to be received with open arms. Come on strong dictating a curriculum, and you are likely to get to talk to the ‘whatever’ hand.
In summary: this short article covers a big subject. The basics are covered, but I'm happy to engage with anyone who wishes to. You can find me on Facebook, but let me know why you are friending me.
Industry and education can really help each other. They need to if games are to become all they should be, but that requires some understanding and respect from both sides.
Justin Parsler is lecturer in games design at Brunel University and a senior designer at Mediatonic