The market for video games is growing and so too is thedemand for graduates to work in it. Steven Poole reports on the universities tailoring degrees for Dreamcasters.
The idea of spending three years at university playing video games sounds like a joke - and just as countless study hours were once lost playing pool or listening to Led Zeppelin, there are no doubt many students today avoiding essay crises by playing Tomb Raider or Quake. In Britain, the video-game industry is now 40 per cent bigger than the cinema business and the professional rewards it offers are stratospheric. In response, universities have begun producing tailored degrees in video-game design.
During the home-computer boom of the early 1980s, a self-taught bedroom programmer could single-handedly write a game for the ZX Spectrum in a couple of months. Today, a video game takes tens of specialists two years and millions of pounds to produce. The teams include not just programmers, but artists working with pencil and paper, digital animators, audio engineers, environment designers, composers, mathematicians and specialists in textures, physics and artificial intelligence. As the sophistication of games on new hardware, such as the Sega Dreamcast and Sony PlayStation2, continues to increase, the industry will require ever higher levels of formal training from its recruits.
Universities with video-game courses - Bournemouth, Bradford, Humberside, Huddersfield, Derby, Plymouth, Salford, Teesside, Middlesex and Abertay - are responding to a crippling shortage of competent talent in an industry that will create about 6,000 jobs this year.
They are also responding to a huge demand from school-leavers, according to David Bradshaw, head of programmes at Bournemouth, which offers a suite of undergraduate and masters courses in computer animation and games. "We have 45 places at undergraduate level," he says, "and 72 places at postgraduate level and we can fill them all easily with highly qualified applicants."
Matthew Holton, awards coordinator for the BSc in interactive computer entertainment and the BA in computer games design at Teesside, says that even a few years ago many of the university's computer graduates were already being snapped up by the games industry. "We had built up strong links with a number of games companies," he explains. "From them we learned of the skills shortages, and the logical progression was to design courses to answer those shortages. There was some initial resistance to the idea of degrees in computer games, but the university is very progessive and at the forefront of virtual reality and computer animation, so games was not such an unusual departure. The academic depth of the courses was the best argument in their favour."
Academic depth is also stressed by the University of Abertay at Dundee, whose degrees are supported by successful Scottish video-game developers DMA design, creators of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, as well as by gifts of programmable PlayStations from Sony. Abertay is particularly forward-looking in that it offers its students the option of studying Japanese. It was Japan that revitalised the ailing video-games industry in 1978 with Space Invaders. Since then it has been home to the most cutting-edge creativity. "Japanese is actually one of the most popular languages at the university," says Abertay lecturer James TerKeurst says. "We have about 60 students studying Japanese and that's increasing every year. The Gifu prefecture government has worked hard with us to try to find places that might be suitable for our students."
Students who manage to secure a placement in Japan can toy with the most futuristic research. "The Japanese are now working towards what they call 'healing software'. We saw some prototypes where you interact by talking to the computer and using touchscreens - it's much more soothing and friendly," TerKeurst explains.
Students doing video-game design are also keen to learn business skills, because while they may easily be able to find jobs as employees of large studios, most of them will have a pet game idea and want to set up on their own in order to produce it. To this end, from this year the University of Salford will offer a dedicated BSc in video and computer games for publishers.
But the industry is not only about money. It is also a brave new world for the arts. Video games have been with us for nearly 30 years, yet they are still largely derided as mindless entertainment, much as cinema was at the same age - 70 years ago, Georges Duhamel called films "a pastime of illiterate, wretched morons". Eventually, of course, film studies became an acceptable academic subject. And there are signs of wider acceptance of the fierce creativity involved in the liquid architectural design of even a violent splatter-game such as the new Quake III: Arena.
The Bafta awards now honour the year's best video game. And the acceleration of serious research in video games in universities, while it is being driven by the needs of industry and the passion of students, might eventually help video games acquire the recognition they deserve as a revolutionary new collaborative art form.
Higher levels of formal training in universities should improve future games aesthetically. Students at Abertay and Salford do not just learn hardcore programming but investigate the design of other games, such as football, chess or backgammon.
TerKeurst describes the process in his "creativity" module: "In any large project involving programming and creativity, teamwork dynamics are important, so we are starting to develop them right away. We set a number of initial problem-solving exercises - get a car from this side of the room to the other without touching the floor, for instance - and then the students develop and test boardgames and create their own game prototype by the end of the first year."
Abertay's BA in computer arts is aimed at designers, artists and musicians: of all the video-game courses, it concentrates most on the need for new forms of artistry that can plug into interactive media.
TerKeurst says: "What we're trying to do is teach the students to be skilled visual creators and communicators, and in that area, video games are what pushes the technology."
If virtual environments are the future, then it does not matter whether you never play a dedicated video game. It is the graduates from courses such as these who will invent and create the digital worlds in which everyone has a stake.
Steven Poole is the author of Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, to be published by Fourth Estate in May.
WITH A GAMING DEGREE, A JOB IS VIRTUALLY GUARANTEED
Mark Rawlinson, general manager at the European Leisure Software Publishers' Association, explains the video-game industry's hunger for highly trained talent: "The industry was worth Pounds 951 million last year and things are much more sophisticated than they used to be. We need to bring in people with academic qualifications.
"Over the next six months, we are researching all the degree courses and all the entry criteria so that we can begin to educate careers advisers, schools and colleges.
"We get calls from careers advisers saying, 'I've got a student who wants to develop a career in the video-games industry. What is it? Does it exist? Is there a career path?' The students are probably ahead of them - they know they want to get into the industry but they don't know how to do it.
"We have to make the careers advisers aware that although we are creating a product that is a game, it's not a game to produce that product.
"We have a lot of creative talent here. We contribute to a positive balance of trade for the United Kingdom: we export more video games than we import, unlike the film and television industries, which are both net importers. So the Treasury is very grateful to us. The talent that we create and foster is recognised as being the very best in the world. We need to promote that if we're going to continue at the highest level."