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Visit to University of Abertay, Dundee

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 24 Feb 2017, 18:05

During a motorcycle touring holiday at the beginning of May, I found a bit of time to pop into the University of Abertay, Dundee, for a couple of hours.  This was the first time I had ever been to Dundee.  One of the reasons for the to visit was to find out more about the university's Dare to Be Digital video game competition which has been running since 2000 (becoming an international event in 2005).

Dare, as it is known, is a tough event to enter; students and teams have to competitively apply.  When students have been accepted, they work together within interdisciplinary teams to create a whole computer game for the duration of the event.  I sense that Dare is unusual and powerful vehicle since representatives from industry play an important role.  Industrial contributors are said to be involved for a number of reasons: to offer support and guidance to student teams, to gain new ideas and inspiration and also to be introduced to participants who may be looking for a foothold within the industry.

In an earlier HEA gaming and animation event I attended I heard it said that the best way to demonstrate one's own technical abilities is to provide a demonstration of a completed game.  I've always felt that a CV and interview is a thoroughly inadequate selection approach, especially for software roles which are, in my opinion, intrinsically creative.  I've always wanted to show an employer what I've coded but have, on occasions, been scuppered by convention and copyright.  In a way, creating something to add to a 'digital portfolio' takes a leaf straight out of the creative arts book.  Showing a development (which is what the Dare participants produce) allows not only a demonstration of technical skill, but also facilitates opportunities for further discussion about some of the challenges that had to be overcome during the production of a game.

I was interested to learn that Dundee has what is known as a Games Festival (BBC News), an event that I hadn't heard of before.  There are film festivals, music festivals and book festivals and games connects with all these different types of media.  I would even go as far as writing that there are some games which strike me as works of art, combining breath taking animation, complex characterisation, awesome sound all of which have the potential to create strong emotional responses.  The thought of a games festival reminds me of a suggestion in the earlier HEA event that students should try to make the time to visit such events.

During my visit to Abertay I remember having a chat about the challenges of working within the games industry.  I remember once hearing that commercial software developers have what is becoming known as a half-life.  This means that after a number of years being really technical and cutting code, the challenge of learning 'yet another tool' and juggle code in the developers short term memory becomes activities that become tiring rather than exciting.  It is felt some roles within the games industry, perhaps the more technically focussed ones, can also have a career or role half-life.

This said, being involved in the games industry isn't just about cutting code (games engines can be utilised and harnessed), there's also roles which relate to the production of a game or product.  Understanding the bigger picture and being able to work with other disciplines (such as graphical design, music and business) are skills that are arguably more important than pure technical talent.

One comment that I remember from the visit was that some students choose to study games because they enjoy playing them.  It strikes me that there is a huge chasm between the attractiveness of the end product and the intense and detailed development activities that must take place to create a game.  It is akin to the difference between watching a film and thoroughly understanding the technical and artistic dimensions of film production.  I came away having confirmed my sense that working in the industry is hard work, and it was encouraging that the staff I met were able to convey first-hand industrial experience to their students.

I'll close this blog with three different thoughts: an observation, a personal reflection and some thoughts about research.  The observation is of a mural that could be seen in the building I visited.  The mural depicted a graphical history of three different things (I hope I'm remembering this correctly!)  The first is a timeline of gaming hardware, the second (I think) is a timeline of important games, and the third seemed to be a timeline of important companies or publishers.  Such a mural offered a visible reminder of the context in which students were working and that we are a part of an emerging history which continually changes as technology changes.

The second thought, the one that is personal, is closely connected to the mural.   Those of us who have grown up with technology have our own unique relationship with games.  In some ways the industry may play a formative role in the way that we interact with technology.  My own history with gaming began with home computers of the 1980s particularly the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (which was apparently built in the now closed Timex factory in Dundee; a fact that had passed me by!)  I remember buying cassette games from specialist computer shops and, later, budget games at my local newsagent (a reflection on how the marketing of games operated at the time).

More powerful technology led to better (and more exciting) games, particularly Elite (Wikipedia), which was played (during my school lunch hours) on a BBC Model B equipped with an exotic piece of technology known as a disk drive.  Elite was astonishing.  It made use of three dimensional wire frame graphics - a player could explore an entire galaxy and cause no end of trouble by shooting at space stations. 

My games history also includes ownership of two different generations of Sony Playstation but concludes with some meddling with on-line worlds and games hosted on mobile devices.  This movement to different platforms and then onto the internet reflects how gaming (and the games industry) has changed with developments in technology.

Finally, onto the subject of research.  I have thoughts that reflect two rather different questions.  The first relates to understanding the career stability and demands placed on those who work within high technology industries, and the ways in which career trajectories can change and develop.  Understanding the quality and diversity of careers within an industry has the potential to offer useful and practical guidance to programmes of study that aim to equip students for work within an industry.  I don't know if the games industry has been subject to any form of systematic study, but perhaps this is an interesting question to ask.

The second question relates to an increasingly strong research interest, namely the effect of geography and which other influences may affect the development of a particular technology or industry.  Perhaps there is something special about Dundee that has affected how the city has emerged as centre for games education.

A few final words: many thanks to those at the University who were able to spare some of their valuable time to talk to me; I felt very welcome.  I was minded of the fact that scratching the surface of gaming revealed a complex creative industry and one that relies on the creativity and talent of people from many disciplines. My visit reminded me of the exciting (and challenging) nature of digital media and emphasised that continual change and evolution in both the industry and technology is a constant.

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