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How the UK games industry and education should work together

The Games Education Summit revealed how to better prepare games graduates and improve diversity through education

Never before has it been more important for the UK games industry to be actively involved in education.

With Brexit creating challenges around recruitment, and COVID-19 causing problems for today's graduates, there is a real need for the business to unite with educators to support the next generation. But more than that, there is an industry-wide desire to improve the diversity of game makers. If people from different backgrounds are to enter this business, it's going to involve engaging with young people at the earliest possible opportunity.

These were key topics at this year's virtual Games Education Summit from the British Games Institute, and the discussion produced key action points for both educators and UK games studios to consider.

You can watch the key sessions right here. But here are our eight takeaways:

1. Teaching communication is vital

"You lose so many children through a lack of access. There's only so much we can do"

Shahneila Saeed, Digital Schoolhouse

At the 2019 Summit, there was a call for universities to better prepare students with the "soft skills" they need to work in games studios. In 2020, that has become incredibly important, especially around communication. UK developers are preparing for a world where staff won't always be working in an office, and students need to be ready.

"A junior with less experience... they might be getting on with their work and doing a fantastic job, but if they're not communicating that with their line manager or their wider team, that can be a problem," said Codemasters' Recruitment Manager Meg Daintith. "It is traditionally one of the things you learn on the job. You learn how to work. We need people coming out of unis who can hit the ground running."

Dr. Charlie Hargood from Bournemouth University added: "We need to give our students a range of different communication skills. It's not just one form of communication; you need to be good at written communication, live video communication, pre-prepared video communication. We want to give our students a well-rounded set of communication skills."

2. Overcome tech and internet poverty

The games industry can be quite middle class, and changing that is made challenging by the tech requirements needed to learn the required skills -- young people who don't have the right set-up or internet access are potentially being kept out of making games. This has become more acute with COVID-19, with students required to use their own home equipment for learning.

"You lose so many children through a lack of access," commented Digital Schoolhouse programme director Shahneila Saeed. "There's only so much we can do. When we livestream our workshops, for example, we deliver them in two parts. The first was always unplugged, so you only needed to watch the video, and everything else could be done with pen and paper.

"But then you're assuming that these children have a device to access that YouTube video. There are so many children who just don't have the equipment or device at home. Or there are families that are sharing devices. If you have four kids sharing a smartphone, then they're not going to spend their hour on the device watching a YouTube video."

3. Time to reach a compromise on interns

Internships remained a hot topic at the Games Education Summit. With COVID-19, work placements have become trickier, but Dr Hargood said they're still viable.

"One of the long-term impacts of the COVID crisis is more companies will be working remotely, so being able to provide a virtual internship is a valuable part of the education of our students."

Universities in the UK tend to send their students on internships in the middle of their courses, which enables them to spend a year working in business and then they bring that back into their final year of their course.

"We have students coming out wide-eyed with a games degree, and not sure what to do"

Meg Daintith, Codemasters

"It also allows them to contextualise what they're doing in their final year with things they've learnt from industry," added Dr Hargood. "When you go onto doing your final project at the end, being able to do that with skills you've learnt from industry helps that become a more well-rounded piece of work"

However, internships are difficult for studios to manage, especially smaller companies. And bigger studios prefer to offer their interns jobs after a placement has finished, rather than send them back to education.

"We have always favoured a slightly varied model of internships being a bridge between university and work, rather than a mid-course option," said Codemasters' Daintith. "We have favoured some of the European universities which have internships at the end, and of course we give them time off to celebrate when they graduate. But that means they can come to us as a full-time member of staff at that point."

Nevertheless, the panelists agreed there's a compromise to be found.

"There's two different things here: early graduate recruitment and placements," Dr Hardgood said. "This was one of the things that I took back to my department after last year's event. And the question I was asked was: 'What is really the difference here between a placement and just hiring a young graduate?' A placement mid-degree has a value in of itself, but I think there's two separate things here and they're both valid. It's about finding a way to do both."

4. Encourage students to specialise

Some of the AAA studios talked of situations where graduates come into the office and find themselves a bit stunned -- "this wasn't what I had been taught." Some educators teach broad games programming courses, and work with specific tools and engines like Unity. These general skills might be useful for anyone embarking on a career as an indie, but AAA businesses want specialists.

"Of course students need to gain confidence and make games -- there's no harm in learning Unity," said Codemasters' Daintith. "But by the time they graduate or are ready for an internship, there should be an understanding of whereabouts they fit. If you want something in-depth, then you really must be early on with a technical specialism.

"It's about the talent that could be missed by an industry only looking at graduates"

James Ellis, Creative Alliance

"We have students coming out wide-eyed with a games degree, and not sure what to do. We do need those in their third years to understand the specialism of roles because they will go immediately into deployment. We don't have a general pool. A small indie might, but at Codemasters we have departments for this. You need to know where you're targeting and what job you want well before you graduate."

5. Support apprenticeships

There were a few sessions on apprenticeships during the Games Education Summit, including a fascinating look at how Traveller's Tales successfully brought on apprentices from further education -- and during COVID-19. But beyond the ability to develop talent, apprenticeships will help the industry attract different kinds of employees.

"It's about the talent that could be missed by an industry only looking at graduates," said Creative Alliance's business development manager James Ellis. "They're the doers. Formal education doesn't necessarily work for them, or perhaps they did a degree in the wrong area.

"This is someone who is doing something on their own. They've taught themselves. Their code might be a big rough, but these are the people every industry needs. They're the ones who wake up every day and want to create these things. They want to learn while doing. If the sector doesn't look at this, they could be missing out."

6. The games industry should be involved in research

Dr. Charlie Hargood returned to the Games Education Summit this year to make another case for studios to get more involved with academic research.

"I see research as a fundamental part of the skills gap," he told the audience. "We talk a lot about undergraduates, and it's obviously very important to raise the quality of that to give them opportunities. But there is also this question about how we bring people who are beyond that entry graduate level? How do we create the specialists for the next generation?

"If you want a specialist in artificial intelligence or UX or high-level graphics, that may come from a research programme. It's not just about educating individual people, but us as a sector. The industry learns as a sector about new skills and new technologies by conducting research and development. We are getting this a bit, but it is something we want to amplify and increase.

"It would be great to get big studios involved in the projects, perhaps lending their expertise, or funding PHD positions. That way we can create PHD students who are skilled in what you want. Or even taking one of your staff and getting them a research qualification, so you have those skills.

"The under-representation of young women on university courses seems very important... They start off as the minority and go on to be the minority"

Sharon Tolaini-Sage, Norwich University of Arts

"On the smaller end of the scale, even getting involved in the steering committee of a research project. Having the voice of a games company on those panels would be incredibly valuable for the research, because it makes sure what we're discovering is useful. But it also greatly increases the chance of getting it funded in the first place. If I am talking to research councils and trying to get them to fund games research, they will want to see that the industry is involved and interested enough to support it."

7. Encourage girls at a young age

"We need to address assumptions about fairness," said Sharon Tolaini-Sage, lecturer from Norwich University of the Arts. "Unfairness begins at the very beginning of an education cycle. It doesn't start at university, but it is in universities, too.

"People assume universities are terribly fair places where everybody has an equal chance, especially in terms of gender where there is equal representation on game courses. We found some statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency from 2017/2018, which showed that 11% of students on games-related courses were female. That increased in 2018/2019 to only 14%.

"The under-representation of young women on university courses seems very important. You can't assume people are starting from an even playing field. They start off as the minority and go on to be the minority. But this starts really far back."

Sumo Leamington's Harinder Sangha agreed: "I find it shocking that girls as young as ten are still being discouraged from STEM studies. My child's school has done some research and they've found a lot of girls in Year 6 are not performing as high in maths. So what can they do to help encourage that? So from Year 5 they are trying to find female role models to stand up and talk."

8. Work with educators on the curriculum

The University of Portsmouth's Anna Limpens created a special course alongside UK developer Rare to great effect. These collaborations between education and the industry are going to make a big difference.

"I went up to Rare and spent a couple of days with the lovely Melissa Knox," Limpens said. "We sat and looked at my curriculum. She didn't pull any punches. She said 'no, this is what we need.' So between us we came up with this curriculum content, and also relevant and useful assessments that met my objectives. We felt it was pretty robust. The added advantage is that it gave it additional credibility to students, because they felt it had an industry touch to it."

Norwich University of the Arts' Sharon Tolani-Sage concluded: "The Digital Schoolhouse from UKIE. The Legacy Project from Creative Assembly. The collaboration with Rare. I've been running a project where we bring studios into the university and give two-weeks work experience programmes digitally. These are so valuable, and we can do so much more."

For more from the BGI's Games Education Summit, check out the sessions here. GamesIndustry.biz was a media partner for the event.

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