What Games Are

TADHG KELLY

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We live in a time when games have be­come a hot area in skills ed­u­ca­tion. In the UK, a con­sid­er­able charge led by fig­ures such as Ian Liv­ing­stone drives for bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion at school and univer­sity level to turn out grad­u­ates in game pro­duc­tion and an­i­ma­tion.

In the US, there are sev­eral fully fledged col­leges, such as DigiPen, that teach many skills to as­pir­ing young pro­fes­sion­als. For hefty fees, you can learn the req­ui­site skills and of­ten find place­ments in big stu­dios.

The pur­pose is to help fill a need for qual­ity staff. In the UK, the con­cern is that there aren’t enough great young can­di­dates to do the re­quired work and that this will shrink the in­dus­try. So cour­ses fash­ion em­ploy­able can­di­dates with for­mal train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence to help make the next Des­tiny. Cour­ses thus teach games as a kind of ca­reer and get young game mak­ers into the idea that this is pri­mar­ily a pro­duc­tion in­dus­try. And that’s where the counter-ar­gu­ments start.

The first ar­gu­ment is about boot­straps. There are more free tools out there than ever be­fore to teach cod­ing, art and other dis­ci­plines. “Why,” the boot­strap­per asks, “pay lots of money to learn this stuff when it’s just ly­ing around?” He ar­gues that the novice who throws them­selves at a project will learn much more than if she goes to school, and at a frac­tion of the cost.

The sec­ond ar­gu­ment is about the value of gen­eral ver­sus specialist ed­u­ca­tion. Many pro­gram­mers say they pre­fer grad­u­ates with com­puter sci­ence over game de­vel­op­ment de­grees, be­cause specialist cour­ses are good at teach­ing en­gines, but poor at fun­da­men­tals.

The third ar­gu­ment is about the chang­ing state of the in­dus­try. Games evolve and so by the time a grad­u­ate has come through and learned one set of tech­niques, the in­dus­try has al­ready moved on. How are col­leges to keep pace with new busi­ness mod­els and tech­nolo­gies?

These ar­gu­ments boil down to a lack of faith in skills ed­u­ca­tion. They im­ply that skills are all well and good, but if you go down this route then you’ll end up tak­ing on lots of debt and sac­ri­fic­ing your am­bi­tion. That’s great if you want to work in an orches­tra, but not if you want to start a band.

Can you re­ally learn game de­sign?

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, such at­ti­tudes show a lack of fa­mil­iar­ity with the ma­te­rial in many cour­ses. A course might con­cen­trate on art or pro­gram­ming, project man­age­ment or de­sign. It might be strictly skills-fo­cused or em­brace a wider brief. Some cour­ses are aimed at neo­phytes, while oth­ers as­sume at least a base­line fa­mil­iar­ity.

The fact is also that work­ing on triple-A games is the am­bi­tion of many stu­dents. They’ve grown up see­ing games sur­pass their hum­ble roots and de­cided that the in­dus­try is what they want to be a part of. While be­ing an in­die is at­trac­tive, not ev­ery­one de­sires a ca­reer scrab­bling for a liv­ing in mo­bile games, hop­ing for the next big thing.

I in­creas­ingly find my­self in sup­port of the idea that study­ing in a for­mal set­ting is just as valid as self-teach­ing, with one big ex­cep­tion: game de­sign. ‘What is game de­sign?’ is still a ques­tion that con­founds many people. What a game de­signer does, what good game de­sign looks like, and what’s good and bad prac­tice are open ques­tions. De­sign re­tains the aura of alchemy.

Stu­dents have an idea that de­sign has some­thing to do with writ­ing things down or di­rect­ing teams or some­thing, but it’s never very clear. There are many books that talk about de­sign in rounded terms. Yet there are few, if any, prac­ti­ca­ble guides for how to de­sign bet­ter.

Col­lege cour­ses fre­quently strug­gle with this ques­tion just as much as stu­dents. Most think it’s sort of the film di­rec­tion of the game in­dus­try. Or maybe screen­writ­ing. No­body’s en­tirely sure, and those def­i­ni­tions stack up very badly against what many work­ing stu­dios do.

So it’s very com­mon to hear ad­vice like ‘read and be good at ev­ery­thing’, or for de­sign to be a sec­ond-stage ca­reer for skills prac­ti­tion­ers. But game de­sign is just a skill. The ad­van­tage that most game pro­duc­tion skills have over de­sign is that their out­put is tan­gi­ble. Mak­ing a great model, de­vel­op­ing a great en­gine or putting to­gether an ac­tion­able budget is clear.

Great de­sign, on the other hand, is more a mat­ter of opin­ion. Be­cause games are per­ceived as a nascent medium, ide­ol­ogy and pol­i­tics fre­quently come into de­sign dis­cus­sion. De­sign ses­sions are rarely about good prac­tice or smart strate­gies and more about phi­los­o­phy. There’s lit­tle sense of ‘good’ in a con­ven­tional sense and tons of ‘good’ in a po­lit­i­cal sense.

At­tempts to break up this log­jam (such as for­mal­ism) usu­ally en­counter heavy re­sis­tance. So the con­fu­sion of craft with polemic causes lots of prob­lems. Count­less times I’ve en­coun­tered stu­dents, de­vel­op­ers and teach­ers who are tired of the pol­i­tics and just want sound tu­tor­ship.

What’s the best prac­tice for writ­ing out me­chan­ics? How do you draw a wire­frame? How should you de­sign con­trols? How to im­ple­ment so­cial fea­tures? These are straight­for­ward ques­tions with prag­matic an­swers, but their know-how has yet to pen­e­trate most teach­ing.

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