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The View From the Tower

Why Cambridge graduates struggle to get into the games industry

If you went to university, chances are you'll have some games related memories to call upon. Whether procrastinating with a single player game or getting friends over for some multiplayer fun times, students often make games a big part of the university experience.

But how many university graduates end up in the games industry? Despite all the fun you had, how many people who loved gaming in your friendship circle actually ended up in the industry?

It's a thought that I've had since I graduated from Cambridge in 2011. Despite knowing off the top of my head of at least half a dozen people who liked games as much as me, if not more in many instances, I was the only one to make the transition into the industry.

Which led me to think one thing: why? Is "Ivory Tower" snobbery to blame for putting people off games? Or is there a problem from the industry recruitment side, which makes it difficult to graduate and find a career in games?

"Is 'Ivory Tower' snobbery to blame for putting people off games? Or is there a problem from the industry recruitment side, which makes it difficult to graduate and find a career in games?"

The answer is a bit of both. Cambridge, and Oxford to some extent, has done little to support those interested in entering the games sector at the University. It has, however, not been helped by a weak industry recruiting structure, which fails to make basic outreaches to students.

And though there are problems, which are unique to Cambridge, where I focused my research, the breakdown of communication between the industry and education does not seem to be an isolated problem; it appears to be prevalent across the board.

Escaping the ivory tower

To begin then, it's worth emphasising that there does appear to be a problem with encouraging talented students at the University to take jobs in the games industry. Not only is there a shortage of talented graduates in gaming to act as mentors, there does appear to be a cultural block which discourages students to look at gaming.

Discovering exactly how many people have left Cambridge and gone into the games industry is hard to do. The destination of leavers from higher education survey (DLHE for short) is the go-to source for general information on what careers graduates go into after graduation.

"Not only is there a shortage of talented graduates in gaming to act as mentors, there does appear to be a cultural block which discourages students to look at gaming"

But the deepest it goes into career path are broad categories such as Arts and Recreation (3 percent of Cambridge leavers), which could include games jobs but could equally include comedy, music or a number of other careers.

So, to try to dig in more deeply into precise numbers of graduates within industries, I examined the GradLink programme for more information.

Offering students connections to graduates working within industry, the database contains, at the time of writing, 1623 active links to graduate mentors. Searching the database for careers traditionally associated with Cambridge graduates first, there were 85 active links for someone who searched "law", 31 active links for someone who searched "doctor" and 18 links for someone who searched "civil service".

For someone searching for careers within the arts, the database returned 23 active links for the term "TV", 20 for "music" and 16 for "film". In comparison, the search term "games" only returned eight records - one of which was for a gambling company and another for a company creating newspaper crossword puzzles.

Despite the fact that the UK games industry is valued at roughly the same market worth as music and film at over £4 billion, Cambridge graduates have significantly fewer links in the games industry to call upon.

"For someone searching for careers within the arts, the database returned 23 active links for the term TV, 20 for music and 16 for film. In comparison, the search term games only returned eight records"

Though this measure is imperfect, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the shortage may also be caused by internal cultural problems at the University.

Oli DeVine, co-founder of Cambridge-based indie studio Ghost Town Games, graduated from the University with a Maths degree. But before he entered the games industry working for Frontier Developments, he found that his ambition to work in the sector wasn't shared by faculty staff.

"Well... it wasn't taken especially seriously as a career," he said. "A professor did tell me at one point that I was throwing my life away. I think there is an assumption games development, because it involves creativity, is somehow no longer a technical field."

Of course, one bad experience shouldn't be seen as reflective of the entire experience across an institution. Nevertheless, Devine's point is a reflection of a difficult to describe little "c" conservatism within the University towards the games industry that does undermine it.

But within the institution are plenty of individuals willing to act freely. And it was after speaking to them that it became clear there wasn't just a problem from the University side; there is a clear industry outreach issue too.

Where is the games industry?

Cambridge students, despite what you might think, are interested in games and the prospect of working within the industry. Fifty students attended the first ever getting into games panel, which the University hosted in February 2016, and it was clear that they're just as passionate about games as anyone else is.

"I've been into games since I was at school," said Sarah Binney, who is reading for a Masters in the History and Philosophy of Science following her physics degree. "I didn't really have them in the house when I was a kid, we never had any consoles, but when I was about 14 I discovered PC gaming and never looked back."

"When I was deciding what to apply for at university I already knew that I didn't just like playing games but I was very interested in the whole process of making games"

This translates into genuine interest in working within the sector. "I'm not sure when I realised this," Edward Sherlock, a 21-year-old physicist explained, "but when I was deciding what to apply for at university I already knew that I didn't just like playing games but I was very interested in the whole process of making games." Though he considered going into a game design course first, he decided to plump for Natural Sciences at Cambridge instead to leave his options open later (including working in video games).

However, despite their interest, it became clear that few students had actually heard of or been in contact with gaming companies.

"I remember only a very small number of game-related companies, such as Jagex [which is Cambridge-based], advertising," Binney told me. "I don't think any of the big firms like Sony or Nintendo have ever advertised in Cambridge."

This compares unfavourably with other sectors. "I've had lots of companies approach me via flyers in my pigeonhole and careers fairs about going into software consultancy," she continued, "as well as banking and law, which seemed like lots of big names offering me graduate jobs and six-figure salaries within five years."

And though Binney clarifies that the latter is "not the sort of job I'd sell my soul for", it illustrates the way major companies such as law firms, consultancy companies, the government and international businesses begin to lay out as such information as possible to ease people out of Cambridge and straight into a job role.

These are all things gaming companies aren't doing. Asking Sherlock about what more games companies could do to help encourage him to work for them, he raised the point of how difficult it is to find a route into the games business.

"There also does not seem to be a 'path' into the industry. They seem to be happy to leave the situation to be a maze fitted with traps and just take the 'strongest' people who happen to make it through"

"There also does not seem to be a 'path' into the industry. They seem to be happy to leave the situation to be a maze fitted with traps and just take the 'strongest' people who happen to make it through."

That, in part, is explained by the entrepreneurial and often Darwinian nature of the games industry. As micro studios struggle to create, release and monetise games, with many closing after their first effort, student relations and hiring strategy will, inevitably, fall down the pecking order.

But with many larger companies now operating in the UK and with increasing "games as a service models" mitigating risk and expanding head counts, outreach to the likes of Cambridge to acquire talent has to be on the mind.

"I've never thought about [going into gaming], because the companies advertising grad jobs are almost exclusively not in gaming," Binney explained. And though she said she would consider roles in the future, it's telling she has already got a job lined up in software consultancy - which provided the kind of information she needed.

Changing Cambridge, changing industry recruitment

A change needs to take place on both sides of the equation to solve the problem of Cambridge recruitment.

On one side of the equation, the culture within Cambridge University needs to change to support those interested in games more effectively. In this case, it would do well to look at its neighbour Anglia Ruskin for examples of how to work productively with students. It offers regular game jams, hosts the Brains Eden gaming festival with the help of BAFTA and even has an eSports team. Furthermore, local gaming community initiatives, such as local indie meetup CB2 Indies, should be publicised to support ambitious students.

On the other side of the equation, games businesses need to, quite frankly, pull their fingers out and begin contacting these students properly. Aside from NaturalMotion, Feral Interactive and Chinese publisher Netease, adverts for internships and jobs on the university careers board are few and far between. And while recruiters from other industries hover constantly, the games industry is nowhere to be seen - failing to provide basic information about the sector or how to enter it.

What's particularly worrying as well is that it seems to be replicated across the country. Whether you go into games after school, before university, through a game design course or after you've been to a red brick institution, the best advice still appears to be to take an entry level job or build something by yourself instead.

"First, it discourages talented individuals who don't fit an entrepreneurial personality type from using their skills in the sector. Second, it encourages laziness in the sector"

That's all well and good, but it causes two problems. First, it discourages talented individuals who don't fit an entrepreneurial personality type from using their skills in the sector. Second, it encourages laziness in the sector. Expecting the cream to rise to the top for it, it means that the chance to actively court and recruit talented students or youngsters is lost to a form or complacency.

At the Westminster Project Forum when I asked a panel about this issue, referencing Cambridge specifically, they suggested that the lack of information about the games industry in the UK is a problem at both cultural and educational levels.

"Far too few people in this country don't assume games are made in the UK, they're made in LA," said Ian Baverstock of Tenshi Partners. Meanwhile, Seetha Kumar of Creative Skillset, believed that the organisation's "pick the tick" campaign could help by watermarking the best games industry courses around, helping students to study effectively and to help recruiters find proven talent.

The last word on this comes from Chris White MP, the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Committee for video games. In response to my question about recruitment from Oxford and Cambridge into the sector, White answered generally that "we need to more to formalise and mainstream this sector [the games industry]; it is something we need to work on."

Cambridge is, in this context, a microcosm of the problem. It does have unique challenges for the games industry to solve to tap into it as a recruitment pool, such as the competition for graduate talent and institutional resistance.

However, the general complaints of the games industry not doing enough to sell the British success story, lacking clear job paths for young people wanting to enter the sector, that is a much bigger problem -- one which will only be solved by the industry working more closely with educational providers in the future.

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