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  • Innovation or Vocation? The Purpose of Game Education

    [12.24.07]
    - Albert T. Ferrer
  •  How do you meet industry demand for skilled employees, while providing an education that leads graduates to innovate in the interactive field? Is it enough that students learn the ins and outs of a job? Are schools doing enough to ensure that the industry stays fresh with new ideas? Is the popularity of short-term technical programs doing more harm than good, leading potential game design students to narrow thinking?

    When schools began offering game-related programs in the mid to late 1990s, no set formulas were in place. Since then, institutions have had the benefit of both a maturing industry and experienced professionals to help guide the formation of game education at multimedia institutions and universities such as Vancouver Film School and University of Southern California.

    How can we gauge the success of a game development program? On the one hand, there are undergraduate programs, which largely base their success on how many students get jobs in the industry upon graduation. On the other hand, graduate-level students might look at their department's or university's success based on how much impact their work has had on the industry. Other success factors can be broad, like curricula, or fine-grained, like class sizes, lab time, and how closely the program mimics the inner workings of the professional industry.

    While each program has its own challenges, institutions are ultimately faced with the same issues in terms of teaching game education.

    Connecting with Educators

    Tracy Fullerton, co-director of the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at the Interactive Media Division at University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television, says one of the biggest problems in game education is finding professors. "There are very few qualified professors of game design," Fullerton says. "It is not enough to be or have been a professional developer. Teaching at the university level requires experience of a different kind. This weakness will sort itself out naturally, as more people enter the field, but it is a difficulty that a lot of programs are running into."

    Fullerton presents an interesting dilemma: As academia embraces the study of interactive arts, game education comes one step closer to being considered a serious form of study. Yet if professional developers are not truly qualified to teach it, who is? Experienced game developers often have no formal game development training because they were educated before these kinds of programs became widely available. They don't necessarily know, intuitively at least, the difference between how one might learn game development on the job versus how one might learn it in the classroom. Formalized instruction in the game industry is so new that it has not yet produced a pool of professors to teach it.

    Because game development is a field that depends on many disciplines (such as art, animation, design, programming, audio, and so forth), it attracts a slew of individuals with a variety of educational backgrounds. Not all software engineers study game design to work in gaming, nor do all artists need a bachelor of fine arts to create the images seen in games. Does this diversity hinder specialization, thus affecting the type of games being made? Perhaps it limits the potential of a medium that has yet to be tapped to its full visual, storytelling, and expressive potential?

    Training Candidates for Employers
    Dave Warfield, head of game design at the Vancouver Film School, views game education as a means to supply the prosperous industry with capable employees. "Any program that does not listen to the industry that it's trying to provide new talent to is bound to failure." He says the industry's need for talent in mainstream gaming is a main factor in how VFS's Game Design program is structured. "How can you mold students into desirable candidates if you don't listen to what the hiring companies are looking for?"

    The intentions of those taking game programs at technical schools are ultimately to obtain employment at a game studio, with the technical ability to meet the demands of their future jobs as artists, programmers, and designers.

    But innovation can quickly become an afterthought to paying off student loans, as the tuition for yearlong programs can easily hit the $30,000 mark. These short-term programs can be a risky gamble, too. One year of training -- especially when a student has little to no prior education in the field -- is simply not enough to truly develop a deep knowledge and respect for the medium.
    Not all applicants realize that some programs are intended for students who already have a bachelor's degree or better, or who have years of prior experience in a related field. No matter how many technical classes an otherwise uneducated student takes, it's not the same as receiving a broad and well-rounded schooling.

    Many students fresh out of high school are excited to work with video games for a living and seek out a fast track to getting a degree or certification. The university, post-secondary route just seems like it will take too long and end up being an obstacle to their careers. As these graduates leave game-specific schools and enter the field, one has to wonder if they are at all prepared to push the medium forward in new and innovative ways. No doubt, they will be able to sustain the industry in terms of employment, but in the long term, will a rush of game schools graduates cause an over-saturation in the industry? How many of them will turn out to be true pioneers, and how many will be button-pushers, happy to take employment where they can get it?

    Fullerton's whitepaper "Play-centric Games Education" puts the typical tech school approach to game design in perspective by breaking it down in 3D software packages, with the individual aspects of a 3D game: animation, level design, modeling, and so forth. Though it may seem a generalization of non-university structured programs, a technical school's focus is on the technical, not on history, theory, and practice. As Fullerton suggests, we should question non-academic game education -- is worthy of being taught alongside "more established forms of art, science, and inquiry?"

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