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Higher Learning

Neon Play MD Oli Christie argues the industry should be incentivised to boost developer skills

Last week might well go down as a defining moment for the games industry. The announcement by the Government that the ICT curriculum will be reorientated in favour of computer science and programming is a testament to the excellent work done by Next Gen report authors Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope and the many people and companies who have got behind the Next Gen Skills campaign.

Breaking through the many layers of Government bureaucracy and getting policy-makers to actually listen is a battle in and of itself. As Livingstone himself has already indicated, and will no doubt reiterate in the coming weeks and months, this is a momentous shift in policy but the real work starts now as industry figureheads and policy-makers come together to shape the future of the computer science curriculum in our schools.

Unlike the games industry tax debate, which is a sector specific issue, improving the relevancy of the skills we are teaching younger generations is something that affects the future of the creative industries and a large section of the workforce. Reforming the education and skills sector will not only lead to growth in the already successful UK games industry but it will equip school leavers and graduates of all disciplines with core ICT skills that will serve as a solid foundation for jobs in any sector that relies on computing and technology - be it engineering, the financial services or design. As we transition into the knowledge economy, it's becoming a needs-must situation.

All the developers I have worked with are self-taught and cannot speak highly enough of the virtues of work placements

Convincing the Government - and in particular the previously sceptical Department of Education - to change its position on computer science education in schools is a great start to this campaign and gives the industry something to work toward. We need an adaptable education system that can provide a programme of computer science that is more capable of keeping up with the rapid pace of change in the hi-tech and gaming industries. But what about the students who are currently languishing in video games education at university?

Just a quick chat with any of the developers and designers at Neon Play confirms what most have known for quite some time; video games courses are not teaching students adequately in the skills required to get a job in the industry. One of our developers' complaints about his computer games programming course was that they never did enough actual programming - it was only through a work placement year at a games company that he learnt programming languages that are considered games industry standards. Similarly, one of our games artists, who studied for a BA Hons in Design for Interactive Media, talks about lecturers knowing substantially less about the field of study than the students and a 3D modelling teacher, for instance, who was learning the practice himself the day before teaching each class. Hardly an education fitting of expensive tuition fees.

And what happens when students leave university? Many are faced with studios that are reluctant to take on graduates lacking in significant work place experience and, due to the overall lack of skilled graduates, the chance of finding a junior position at a games studio is decreasing. At Neon Play, we've had student or graduate developers interviewing for positions with really poor portfolios. Some will show us a prototype game, others have created only a YouTube video concept but if they want to work in the games sector, we would expect them to at least have made a complete game.

I hate to say it but, at this moment in time, I seriously question whether a three year university course is of any real benefit for a career in this industry. Sure, it demonstrates an ability to commit to a course of study but it's not where most developers and designers are learning their trade. All the developers I have worked with are self-taught and cannot speak highly enough of the virtues of work placements.

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