Falmouth University seeks to take a larger slice of the digital economy

Cornish university offers an exceptionally realistic training environment for those wanting to work in the games industry

December 3, 2015
Students working with Dell desktop computers
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Game on: the BA in digital games equips students with the right mix of skills, networks and ‘products’ for their portfolios

At Falmouth University’s new Games Academy, says director Tanya Krzywinska, students get a chance to “work in a multi-skills team, within a studio, to make real games”.

Although the academy was officially launched in September (with the introduction of a BSc in computing for games), this is now the second year that Falmouth has been running its BA in digital games.

The course will take about 90 students per year. Unlike on other games development courses, they are divided from the start into six separate specialisms: animation, art, audio, design, programming and writing. Teams of about eight to 10 people, including at least one from each group, are created for at least a year. Each has to come up with a plan for a game, get it signed off by a tutor and then start work.

A Norwegian student, who came to Falmouth after a first degree in digital media production, describes what it is like: “This year, we are working in teams making a platforming-type game, putting into practice what we have learned about theoretically in our lectures.

You need to pitch the idea to the tutors and get a green light if they feel it can be done [with the time, skills and resources available]. Mostly people are in the studio working from 9 to 5 when not in lectures, though we can ask for help if we get stuck. The tutors come by the studio reasonably often, at least once a day.”

Such a model, in Krzywinska’s view, reflects the reality of today’s games industry. There was a time when graduates would generally look for work in larger companies producing high-profile “AAA” games. Now most of the opportunities, as when the industry first got going in the 1980s, are likely to be in much smaller concerns or through setting up on one’s own and building impromptu teams where necessary.

By gaining experience in what Krzywinska describes as “an independent game-development studio with us as mentors”, someone graduating from Falmouth will have exactly the skills, as well as established networks and “products” for their portfolios, that they require.

As with any degree in the creative arts, “the course allows you to fail quickly and easily in a low-risk context” and so learn from experience what to do differently next time. In other cases, however, Krzywinska expects some teams to produce finished games that can actually be taken to market. (As is usual in arts degrees, any intellectual property rights remain with the students.)

In an area such as film studies there is a fairly sharp division between academic experts and those who actually work in the industry. This applies far less to gaming, since much of the technology has been developed within universities. The teaching staff on the Falmouth courses includes people who have worked as modellers or run studios, but also those who study gaming as a phenomenon from outside. 

Krzywinska describes herself as “more on the humanities side, less interested in commercial applications and more in games as an art form”. While many gamers take “a lot of pleasure in mastery over the controls”, she has been involved in projects that explore “what happens when you don’t have mastery.

She recently co-created a game, for example, to accompany an essay that Will Self produced for on-demand digital arts service The Space (in conjunction with the London Review of Books, the BBC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council), on a story by Franz Kafka called The Country Doctor. The game is especially designed to be “not about winning” but to take players into a strange “Kafkaesque” world of “unpredictability”.

The variety of academic perspectives on gaming available at Falmouth means that courses can incorporate both extensive practical skills training and “theory checks” that bring in material from philosophy, cultural and gender studies to encourage budding games developers to reflect on who plays games, questions of stereotyping and so on.

According to trade body Ukie (UK Interactive Entertainment), “the UK games industry was worth over £3.9bn in consumer spend in 2014, up +10% from 2013”. An institution dedicated, according to vice-chancellor Anne Carlisle, to “raising aspirations within Cornwall” is naturally keen that its region should take a greater slice of this cake.

We are interested in bringing in lots of Cornish students,” agrees Krzywinska. “Part of our ethic is in supporting Cornish students to become part of the digital economy.”


In numbers

£3.9bn spent by consumers on the UK games industry in 2014

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