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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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Creating a positive and workable future for UK games and animation courses: industry and education perspectives

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 14 May 2020, 18:34

I recently attended a workshop about the subject of games, animation, education and industrial relevance at the University of Greenwich on 2 April 2012. I have to confess that games and animation isn't my core subject (since I feel that I lie on the more 'computer science' end of an art and design subject continuum), but I do confess to having more of a passing interest in both games and animation.

The main aim of the workshop was about sharing.  Sharing information about what is needed by industry, sharing information about what is taught within academia (and how it is taught), and the sharing of different views and perspectives.

The day comprised of an introductory session, three keynote speeches and a long discussion session. The first keynote presented a perspective from the games industry, the second presented an educational perspective, and the third an animation perspective.  The main points that I managed to gain from the day are summarised below.  Of course, these notes represent my own take on the day; other delegates might have come away with different impressions.

Introduction

The day was introduced by Nigel Newbutt from the University of Greenwich. Nigel contextualised the day by describing some of the challenges that are faced by higher education institutions.  One perspective is that in the world of higher fees students will become increasingly vociferous and may increasingly choose programmes of study will lead to financial and career security.  Considering the industrial perspective is therefore an imperative; industry demands graduates that are employable.  By the same token, academies need to build reputations to ensure that demand for their modules is sustainable.

One of the notes that I've made during the introductory talk is whether there is a gap between academic and vocational education, i.e. learning the principles behind ideas versus learning the stuff that employers in industry needs.  This links to a perpetual (and necessary) tension, the tension between education and training.  This, to me, was a theme that appeared time and time again, often in slightly different guises.

First keynote: future industry directions

Martin Darby gave the first keynote.  Martin works in a start-up called Remode which he co-founded. One of the things that struck me about Martin's presentation is that he touched upon the history of gaming, commenting on how the industry had changed. The principle of a games development cycle connected to the development of new generations of console is being challenged.  Mobile and web-based gaming is a space that is of increasing significance (and one which Remode is working in).

I was introduced to the notion of the AAA game, a term that I had not heard of before. This is a game development which is so substantial that its production has parallels with that of film industry; these are the games which have huge budgets and require teams of developers and artists.

Returning to the theme of the workshop, what do employers within the game industry need?  Martin briefly mentioned a challenging article that was entitled 'Money wasted on uni games courses scandalous'.  Clearly, this is an opinion piece (and the comments posted against the article are interesting), but what are Martin's views?

Gaming is a subject that is intrinsically multi-disciplinary.  There is the need to consider the aesthetics and artistry of a game (art is important), it is necessary to consider the market (business is important), have technical skills (computer science is important), and it is necessary to have the skills to communicate to different groups of people whilst at the same time holding onto the bigger picture.

When it comes to demonstrating competency in these different areas the best thing that someone seeking a foothold in the industry could do is to create a finished project that could be shown to a potential employer.  Finishing something is considered to be very important; this suggests close attention to detail and an ability to grapple not only with technology but also broad concepts.  A demo game that is buggy or doesn't do what it supposed to do, it is argued, makes a terrible impression.

Picking up on the technical skills, Martin said that low level computing skills, such as assembly language, are no longer required.  The reason for this is that much of the low level stuff has been abstracted to other software tools.  Skills such as object-oriented programming and maths are considered to be transferrable to different toolsets.

During Martin's talk (and during the question and answer session), there was some talk about gaming engines, such as  Unity, Unreal and Turbulenz; developments that I had not heard of before.  Relating to the subject of gaming engines, Martin quoted a distinction that had been posed between the 'Masterwork age of games' vs 'founder work of games' (unfortunately I don't have the name of who suggested this distinction).  The argument is that the age of substantial game innovation (the founderwork) is over (ignoring, of course, the different ways in which games are consumed).  Instead, we're in a period where we are gradually improving what we have (mastering our tools and what we produce).

At the end of Martin's talk, there was a chance to share views, opinions and experience. The issue of the multi-disciplinary nature of gaming was emphasised and one of the challenges may be to get different faculties to work with each other. Perhaps there needs to be a balance of modules to enable developers (irrespective of whether they choose to specialise) to gain the big picture. Students, it was argued, should be encouraged to attend conferences and festivals to do just this.

Second keynote: Future of higher education 2012

The second keynote of the day was by Professor Ian McNay from the University of Greenwich. Ian raised a number of issues that were pertinent to the wider sector.  He began by presenting a model of teaching and learning, mentioned the pressures that institutions face in response to increases in fees and the issues of diversity.  During the question and answer session, one question jumped out at me as being very important, particularly regarding the issue of connections between industry and academia. This was, 'should academics consider or be able to take a sabbatical within industry?'  (with a view to informing teaching practice)  The answer was a very clear 'yes, they should, and this would be very useful too'.

Third keynote: An insider's view (industry to education)

For the third keynote, Fraser Maclean shared with us his personal experiences of working as an animator, whilst at the same time connecting his talk firmly to the domains of computing, art and education.  For a mere computer scientist, his presentation was very illuminating and thought provoking.

Fraser began by emphasising the importance of drawing, sharing with us some astonishingly beautiful sketches that I understand to be from his own portfolio. He spoke about the perceptions that some have about sketches and this made me realise that my control of a pencil or paintbrush is one skill in which I am somewhat deficient.  I've noted the words, 'I still maintain that drawing is the most important tool in design'. This strongly linked with earlier discussions about the need to connect the technical disciplines of computing with the discipline of art and design.

Fraser spoke clearly about the commercial perspective, mentioning the notion of a production pipeline where hundreds of different people (and software tool users) may be working on a single production.  Another point that I noted were the words, 'there is only one type of animation, commercial animation'.  All animation costs money; business is just as important as art and computing.

Echoing the importance of attending conferences and festivals as a way to acquire industrial awareness, Fraser mentioned the importance of being aware of and potentially visiting organisations that are important within the animation industry.

Another couple of points from Fraser's speech included his description of how the industry had changed over the years, and how it had resisted change.  A really interesting comment was how animation specialisation might have also changed.  Previously artists might be required to draw one character (or a set of characters).  Due to the application of computer modelling, animation was described in terms of 'puppet manipulation', where the puppet exists within the memory of a computer.  Some animators may be skilled at certain types of movements (or sequences of movements) as opposed to others.

To me, the understanding of multiple disciplines was also an important theme, as was the different ways to link industry with education.  This led us towards discussions about a programme called Dare to be Digital that operated in conjunction with the University of Abertay, Dundee. I have also noted a reference to something called Skillset Accreditation.

All in all, a very interesting talk. Given my involvement in an Interaction Design module with the Open University, one point that Fraser made about storyboarding jumped out at me.  This was when he emphasised that animation or film storyboards only need to convey the essence (and not the detail) of a scene, that it's okay for sketches to be sketchy.  The importance of sketching as a mechanism of communication (as well as animation) was a topic that occupied my thoughts for some time after the day had ended.

Discussion

Fraser's talk led directly onto an open discussion session between all the delegates where industrial and teaching experiences were shared.  Given the number of delegates at the event this 'free form' discussion worked particularly well, but does pose unique challenges when attempting to compose a concise summary (in fact, parts of the discussion section might have leeched into my earlier summary of Fraser's talk).  Instead I'm going to mention some of the points that jumped out at me, necessarily omitting others.

The first point that I would like to share is a link to the Livingstone-Hope skills review of video Games and visual effects (the video that is featured on this page is worth a watch). A notable comment on the video was that a perfect graduate would be one who was skilled at maths, physics and art. 

One of the continuing tensions (and one that I've mentioned earlier) is the distinction between education and training.  Industry always wants graduates who are able to be immediately productive with particular tools and technologies, whereas educators may perceive their role to be more about helping learners to acquire conceptual frameworks and vocabularies that help them to learn domain specific products.  

Each discipline has its set of tools. Digital or computer forensics makes extensive use of tools such as EnCase. When it comes to gaming, there are numerous game engines. For animation there are (from what little I know) modelling software tools such as Maya. Effective on-the-job (or employer led) learning depends on knowing some 'stuff' to enable an employee to quickly grasp procedures and functions which can lead to effective practice and performance.

A part of 'education', particularly with regards to gaming, might relate to understanding the broader social context, i.e. what is gaming for and what is its history, a point raised by Fraser Maclean.  Another perspective is the importance of emphasising the connections between disciplines, particularly the commercial dimension.  Whilst a business might be prepared to train a user to use a particular games toolset (or become familiar with a production pipeline), it may be expected that graduates should be familiar with the broader environment in which an industry operates.  This links back to an earlier point of the importance of external events, whether they are conferences, festivals, exhibitions or visits to known employers (should they have the time and the inclination).

Reflections

One of the reasons why I enjoyed this workshop was that subjects discussed were slightly outside of my own area.  This said, animation and gaming has always been persistent interest; I have to confess that I've been an intermittent consumer of computer games ever since I was around ten and I remember being increasingly interested in the computer graphics of computer animation after completing the final year of my computer science degree; I remember attending a screening of Toy Story (persuading myself that it was due to professional interest).

This event had a different structure to other HEA workshops I've attended.  It had a good mix of thought provoking formal presentations and discussion time.  This workshop has emphasised to me the strong link between computing, technology and the creative industries.

I've been to quite a few HEA events at Greenwich but this was the first event that dealt with explicitly gaming and animation.  As I embarked on my short journey home I caught a brief glimpse of the finishing touches being made to the rebuilt Cutty Sark. This made me wonder how animation and computer technology might be used to share stories about this historic and fascinating part of London.

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