The UK gaming industry has always punched above its weight, but recently its lead in this field has been surpassed by software developers based in France, the US, Canada and Japan. John Sear, programme leader for the computer games programming degree at Derby University, believes it is a chicken-and-egg situation. With falling student numbers in computer sciences, the supply of fresh blood to industry is drying up and moving abroad, stifling industry and graduate opportunities in the UK.
Many of the UK's more experienced graduates tend to be attracted by lucrative packages overseas, generating a skills shortage here. "Well-paid positions in the US, France or Japan, particularly in games programming, are depriving the UK of valuable capacity. The field of game development in Britain was originally born out of the bedroom programmer back in the 1980s, but since then the rest of the world has caught up and clearly overtaken us on the publishing and financing side," Sear says.
For the UK to compete worldwide it is imperative that large numbers of students are attracted to computer science degrees to ensure a strong future workforce, he says. "If we can attract and enthuse more students through games education, then this is a hugely positive step. I believe in the concept of work as play. It is vital that we capitalise on students' interests by making teaching more productive.
"Staff and students share the same enthusiasm, so it's easy to keep it going. We believe that if you are enjoying yourself then you are engaged with the subject," he says.
Sear also wants to see the work-as-play theme transferred to schoolchildren and to professionals. "Research undertaken at Derby is indicating that some pupils perform much better when their traditional education is supplemented with information presented in the form of a game environment. We are also beginning to see the same at the other end of the scale with professionals. Who wants to sit through another dull corporate training session when we can teach the same material in a fun, engaging environment?"
Derby's computer gaming BSc aims to forge a link between university teaching and industry requirements. Sear's course was developed in 2004 to try to fill the gap in the dwindling supply of experienced game staff for the UK industry. Teaching staff are mainly former industry employees, giving students a distinct advantage. "Staff attend and speak at computer game industry conferences and so we are able constantly to adapt our material to meet industry needs," he explains.
Sear believes an industry-focused approach will see more success in graduate employment. "As we have been witnessing for the past 20 years, computer-related businesses are among the largest and most important in the world. For the UK to compete on a global scale it is imperative that we continue to attract large numbers of students to computer science degrees, ensuring a strong workforce for the future. If we can attract and enthuse more students through games education then this is a hugely positive step."