Why we need more industry-experienced educators

Why we need more industry-experienced educators
Aardvark Swift

Presented by Aardvark Swift

August 15th 2016 at 11:40AM

The Aardvark Swift team discuss ways in which we can improve the skills of games graduates

Further and higher educational institutions are reaping the benefits of hiring games industry professionals as lecturers and course leaders for games-related courses.

Industry-experienced staff can help bridge the gap between studios and academia, giving students a real insight into a career in games. The change in direction can be rewarding for industry professionals, who are looking to move away from busy studio life and deadlines.

“I have always been interested in encouraging and challenging those young people who have true creative and innovative talents,” says Jon Hare (pictured above left), owner of Tower Studios and visiting lecturer in Computer Games Development at the University of Westminster.

“Working in game education helps me to discover and encourage those students who in my opinion might have what it takes to succeed at the highest level. I also enjoy devising education systems for all students to help them understand the disciplines, practises and reality of game development.”

Iain Harrison (pictured above centre), course director at GamerCamp, also enjoys his academic work environment: “I no longer have to worry about multi-million pound contracts going pear-shaped if I don’t get my work in. It’s nice to not have crunch anymore, too. Other than that, my days are fairly the same. We run the Gamer Camp program as a studio environment and we make games all day.”

The truth is most students are not good enough to employ in comparison to the established professionals out their looking for work. If courses focused more on quality students who have a chance of making it and employed better qualified teaching staff, I am sure these numbers would improve.

Both Iain and Jon recognised a need to bring industry experts into academia, in order to give students the additional background knowledge that they needed.

Jon says: “I feel that currently there are too many games courses, too many students, too many games and too much white noise around the industry. The games industry needs quality and not quantity.

“I am frustrated that my personal input has not had enough impact on anything other than a lot of talk and not a lot of action. The truth is most students are not good enough to employ in comparison to the established professionals out their looking for work – only 12.5 per cent of games students find a games industry job on graduation. However, if the courses focused more on the middle to top quality students who have a chance of making it and employed better qualified teaching staff, I am sure these numbers would improve.”

Also noticing a disconnection between students and studios, Iain told us: “I was sick of watching new juniors making simple and easily avoidable mistakes. It started to annoy me that they were so in debt and yet still hadn’t been taught things properly. Eventually I decided to put my money where my mouth was.”

During their years working in education, Iain and Andy Thomason (pictured above right), games programming lecturer at Goldsmiths University, have noticed a remarkable impact upon learning for their students.

All graduates should have basic skills that can be applied straight away in coding, modelling or animation. However, it is easy to get stuck in a dull and lowly position in a studio and so we teach the students how to get promotions, how to lead teams and how to raise money from financiers to start their own studios.

Iain told us: “My own program is endorsed by several major studios, which I don’t think would have happened had we not decided to only employ ex-dev to run the course. We have very close collaboration with them, from teaching sessions being run, to placement opportunities. Our code program has a 100 per cent recruitment rate and our art program around 70 per cent. This is almost entirely due to the close relationships we enjoy with industry.”

Bringing in industry staff has led to changes in curriculums and a transformation of teaching style and content for both institutions. Andy told us: “We have refined the curriculum considerably over the years. The core of C++ programming and graphics has remained, but we have been putting a bigger focus on networking, cloud gaming and VR this year. We have been very lucky to get Richard Leinfellner, a VP from EA, to help with our placement programme this year and Ian Palmer, former art director at Codemasters, to teach our new MA course.”

Part of Birmingham City University, Gamer Camp was established in 2009 by two games industry professionals. Iain says: “When I started, we were considered a mad experiment by the university. In fact we were the first place in the UK to do things the way we do them. Multidisciplinary teams in a fixed studio environment working nine to five every day. No exams or essays. Just full time, real work experience. Now, however, the whole university is following suit, plus many of our competitors are starting to copy our format. I’m quite proud of that.”

Many industry-employed staff may worry that they’ll no longer play games or be part of the game-making process. However Jon, Andy and Iain have all continued to work on games and improve their developer skills.

Jon told us: “I still make games as my profession, I always have done. For me teaching always plays second fiddle, although it has been great to help me grow as a professional.”

Andy says: “I have an unfortunate Clash of Clans habit and have been playing Factorio, a game where you build huge factories. We are making a game around protein docking called BioBlox, which has been an interesting challenge. I'm still mad about games forty years after writing my first ones.”

So what kind of industry professionals are needed?

Of course, different institutions will have different requirements. Jon says: “The most difficult and specific of the disciplines is coding, without this nothing else can function. Also when we ask groups of students to make games, someone has to be there to help solve the inevitable problems they will come across. In my experience having experienced designers, artists and producers around on staff really helps. But having an education-savvy, industry-experienced programmer managing the course is probably the ideal.”

For Andy, it’s essential that lecturers equip their students with the skills needed for studio employment. He says: “All graduates should have basic skills that can be applied straight away in coding, modelling or animation. However, it is easy to get stuck in a dull and lowly position in a studio and so we teach the students how to get promotions, how to lead teams and how to raise money from financiers to start their own studios.”

Bringing industry staff into further and higher education can improve students’ learning, by giving them the well-rounded preparation they need to break into the industry after they graduate. For the industry-hired staff, teaching can be an exciting and rewarding career change, which allows them to continue exploring their passion for games, while helping young developers to grow their own.