Matt Sanky on Games Education

20 02 2007

“Video game curricula are materializing in universities all around the world, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of the IGDA’s Education SIG, interested developers and a global selection of educators who recognize the value of accredited games education at the college level. While the quality and viability of curricula may vary on a school-by-school basis, the SIG’s evolving Curriculum Framework is building worldwide consensus on what should be taught and how. The legitimacy inherent in something that is studied at the university level will be invaluable to games in the ongoing censorship debate, and of course graduates of these programs may go on to contribute to better and more innovative games.

BUT, for example, it is a mistake on the part of developers to presuppose that secondary educators are exclusively responsible for producing employable graduates. Initiatives such as the establishment of video game academies are wonderful opportunities worthy of pursuit, but don’t lose sight of the fact that games are an art form, deserving of study as such. There’s no reason to assume that every student signs up with the sole desire to make games. I went to film school; I didn’t then, don’t now, never have and never will wish to work in that industry. My interest lay in film as art, as a cultural influence. Others who graduated at the same time and with the same degree did want to make movies, so while I focused on theory, genre study, major directors and audience psychology, they studied editing, camera techniques, sound, lighting and so on. Naturally there was overlap, to ensure a quality education. We can apply the same approach to game curricula.

From a curriculum design standpoint, this means we should further expand history (game and otherwise), play/fun theory, analysis, writing, psychology, literature, ethics and similar humanities-oriented courses taught from a gaming perspective. Understanding the medium of the video game, how it works on an emotional level, will lead to better games tomorrow and wider acceptance today; teaching only the technological aspect of video games is a disservice to the art form and threatens to graduate students with obsolete skills.

Technical education is a crucial part of the curriculum, but it is still only part, and it still receives disproportionate emphasis. A film student interested in becoming the next Walter Murch needs to focus on construction and editing; and game curricula need their courses in tools programming, optimization, C, modeling and so forth. But it should be one of the many paths a student can choose to take. This is more relevant given that developers tend to retrain new hires anyway, and that proprietary toolsets are almost never taught in schools. It is irresponsible to provide accreditation to games programs that only teach half the equation – the equivalent of an English program teaching only grammar and no literature.

Someone graduating from a full-featured games program would have skills pertinent to a huge number of professional fields: advertising, instructional design, education, e-Learning, multimedia, IT, marketing, creative, filmmaking, and web development barely scratch the surface. “Full-featured” is the watchword, though. You go to plumbing school to become a plumber and require only technical education; you don’t necessarily go to game school to become a developer, though a truly inclusive curriculum will allow you to learn how if you so choose.

To accomplish this, we must abandon the nomenclatorial tapioca hounding the field’s curriculum development. Segregating “game studies,” “game education” and “game research” to appease industry crustaceans threatened by the existence of an academia in their midst is… ill-advised. It’s all part of the same big, delicious pie, and should be up to students which slices they choose to eat. Call the whole thing game studies, from DirectX programming to analysis of psychosexual responses in MMORPG play, and leave it at that. Doing otherwise muddies water best left unmuddied and makes it difficult to describe the entire field with a simple phrase. A proper games curriculum should be modeled after modern film studies programs: base prerequisites in technology and theory, with an array of sub-disciplines and electives so learners can customize their experience. The more robust the curriculum is the better off we’ll be.

Given that this is a newish field of study, universities would also do well to hire educators who actually know what they’re talking about, regardless of the letters after their names. There simply aren’t that many PhDs out there yet, but there are hordes of individuals who could lecture on any number of relevant topics. I don’t mean to devalue those with doctorates – far from it – but it would be wise for a university wishing to build a strong games curriculum to bring experts in and allow them to finish postsecondary degrees as they teach. Otherwise their program risks falling behind.

Things are going really well in the world of games education. Yes, most programs still focus too much on tech and art and don’t do enough to produce students who actually understand what games mean. But that’s changing, which is exciting. It took film programs decades to evolve into the well-rounded creatures they are today, and the evolution of game studies seems to be moving much faster. While we’re not yet exactly where I personally would like to see the field, we’re getting closer every day thanks to the foresight, collaboration and wisdom of those involved with educational development. ”

Matthew Sakey

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