Student expectations, course marketing, and the invisible labour of game development.

There’s been a lot of discussion this past week about how universities should approach teaching videogame development and even just what the basic responsibility of game schools even is. This started with this Twitter thread by Danette Beatty from ustwo. Robert Yang wrote these good reflections in response about some of the challenges of teaching game development. Innes McKendrick wrote these good thoughts in a thread. I wrote this thread about how lacking a broad knowledge of game development disciplines is a problem in countries without large studios. Anna Anthropy wrote this good thread about balancing soft/hard skills in games education. The point across these responses: teaching game development is hard and educators and institutions alike are still trying to figure out how the heck you even do this while, at the same time, the global game industry is dramatically restructuring itself.

There’s one side of the discussion I haven’t really seen come up yet that I encountered first hand in the classroom: the fact that the overwhelming number of students who enter game development programs have no idea what the everyday work of game development actually entails. Worse, many of them have wrong ideas about what one does day-to-day to make games. I want to talk a bit about how this happens, how the marketing for game dev programs often exploit this ignorance, and how the responsibility typically falls on teachers to ensure these students know what they are actually getting in for. 

First, I want to look at how game development is often depicted by game dev degree marketing. Here’s an ad from SAE Qantm, the Australian college I spent the last two years teaching at the Brisbane campus of, advertising the game degrees. I’m only picking on this one because it is the one I am most intimately familiar with:

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I couldn’t find a larger version sorry but usually it is this with ‘Create’ written beneath it on bus stops and what not. Here it is on SAE’s Game Dev Program page. Anyway, let’s look at the elements here. The photo is taken in the truck loading bay of SAE Brisbane. On the ipad in the hand of the person in the centre is what looks like the Google Sheet of the staff timetable. It’s hard to tell on this low resolutions sorry but I am sure the game running on the monitors is Half-Life 2, one of the sewer levels while escaping the city. The two students standing up are wearing different VR headsets while seemingly playing (not making) games. This is significantly better than the old advertising campaign.

Here’s a poster from the 2016 prospectus for JMC Academy, another Australian college:

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Note that in all the picture you see people clearly undertaking the act of creating (using cameras, practising music) but the one games picture is two people playing games.

Here’s an amusing old ad for an online college to teach… game testing, I guess? This does the rounds a lot and I’m just assuming it is real. It serves my purpose at least.

And just for fun, here’s how the 101 Dalmations movie thought the game industry works. One person makes a very slick, very polished, very cinematic game, then takes it to a company where a kid decides if they publish it:

It’s stating the obvious to say that most people don’t understand how videogames are actually made, but I think this is in fact a more dire issue for videogames than most contemporary creative industries. I have no idea how to make films, but if I watch a film like Mad Max: Fury Road, I have a sense that this was clearly a lot of work. Someone had to take all these actors and cars out into the desert and somehow film all this action from all these angles. Even if I don’t appreciate just how much work went into it, just by watching it I can see that a lot of work went into it. On the other hand, if I play a big triple-a game that took 5 years to make, the labour is effectively invisible if I don’t have a preexisting understanding of how videogame development works. If I don’t already know how many hours it takes to do a single animation, then I don’t know that it’s remarkable that this character does this one specific animation only once in the entire game. If I don’t know that it’s challenging to make this system render this many trees at once, then I don’t know how much work some programmers put in to make this forest possible. I can’t see the complex project management strategies of the producer that somehow pulled together the work of a hundred different people into a semi-coherent world. Videogame development work is messy, complicated, collaborative across a diverse range of skillsets and disciplines, and largely invisible.

Not only is it invisible, it’s often actively rendered invisible. Large commercial games invest a lot of money in hiding the work that goes into videogames in a number of ways. Firstly, they do this by prioritising frameless and frictionless ‘photorealistic’ game experiences that, as close as possible, feel like full worlds to inhabit. They hide their artifice, ironically, behind a massive amount of labour and, in doing so, make it difficult for a layperson to understand just how much work it took to create that world. Secondly is the culture of secrecy that Casey O’Donnell highlights in The Developer Dilemma. Non-disclosure agreements and anxious publishers and console manufacturers make it hard for developers to talk about what they actually do on a day-to-day basis with other people. This has obviously changed in recent years with the rise of indie and mobile development creating new community of openness, but its still a historical issue. The industry hides its labour.

Another note here: doing game development does not look interesting. A person sitting at a computer writing some code or tweaking a value back and forward in Unity doesn’t look as impressive as a person with a camera or a producer at a sound desk or a musician playing a gig. In fact, physically, the act of playing a PC videogame and the act of making a videogame look almost identical if you can’t see the screen. They’re very similar-looking activities. (Academics have also written about how the industry conflates ‘play’ and ‘work’ through fraternal studio cultures (work is fun!) and a reliance on end-users to generate content through modding and user-generated content).

It makes total sense, then, that the marketing strategies of most colleges and universities with game development degrees is to focus on the optics of playing videogames over the optics of making videogames. I don’t even think it is done maliciously or (deliberately, at least) deceptively. Ads gotta make the thing look cool. Playing games at uni! That’s pretty cool. I’ve seen other universities market their courses as “get into gaming” (does a creative writing degree “get you into reading”?). Of course, too, the people in the marketing departments are probably just as unintentionally ignorant about what the work of game development actually is for the same reasons and are doing the best they can. While I was still at SAE, the marketing department started to actually speak to the teaching staff about what they could do to better depict the degree. Our feedback was essentially to stop just showing people playing games (especially VR).

So the consequence of not just these marketing campaigns but the broader public imagining of what it means to make games is that the people most likely to enter these degrees are people who are there because they love playing videogames. That’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself (though it does often blow out the gender disparity in student bodies). They’re there because they love Skyrim or Dark Souls and want to make that. The majority of students I would encounter would, at the start of their degree, have never heard of GDC or Gamasutra or itch.io. They probably couldn’t name a single ‘famous’ indie developer. Many have never heard of Unity, or saw it for the first time during o-week. Many have no idea what the industry looks like or how it functions or even where in the world it is. They definitely don’t know about the many labour issues that plague that games industry. They don’t know that the Australian industry only employs like 800 people.

My point here isn’t that students are stupid or ignorant. They don’t need to know things before they start. They’re students because they don’t know things! That’s fine. My point is that at the start of their degree, most game development students have no idea what they are getting into. They don’t know what game development is even in abstract way a film student probably understands filmmaking. They don’t even know they don’t know! I’ve spoken to a number of students from later in their degree and they look back with amazement at just how ignorant they were, that they truly thought it would be like playing games all day. The tedium, frustration, exhaustion, and complexity of speaking across disciplines totally shocked them—as was the fact that simply making Flappy Bird was hard enough, never mind Skyrim.

This puts a lot of responsibility on teachers. I don’t mean on institutions but on individual teachers. I used to teach the introduction to game design subject to new students at SAE and learned pretty quickly that despite it not being on my curriculum for the subject, I really needed to ensure these students understand what they were getting into as soon as possible. For some, simply because they shouldn’t be there and they need to realise that before they build up too much debt. (By ‘shouldn’t be there’ I don’t mean ‘they’re bad’ but that they’re going to realise, at some point, that what game development actually is is not the thing they want to do with their life.) Game dev students often need to have their mindsets forcibly shifted from being players to being developers. They don’t do it themselves. There’s this real disconnect, even once they start studying, between what they do and what developers do ‘in the industry’. In later studio subjects, more than once, I’d have a conversation with a student about this weird banal reason they can’t implement what would be a great system, and then minutes later hear them complaining about some imperfect system in a triple-a game. They wouldn’t get that the problem they had is exactly what game development is. That they were doing it already! That those developers that made that imperfect game were dealing with the same interdisciplinary, collaborative challenges they are.

So when we talk about whether or not we should be educating game development students to be generalists or specialists, whether or not we should be ‘preparing them for jobs’ with hard skills or ‘making them more-rounded citizens’ with soft critical skills (a false dichotomy, by the way; most developers I speak to want graduates because of those soft skills, not because they already know Unity), there’s a more basic problem that needs to be addressed which is that most new game development students have absolutely no idea what they are getting into. Sure, this is true of a lot of students generally, and that’s the beauty of tertiary education, especially in the humanities: learning who you are and what you want to do while you progress rather than some linear production line between school at one end and ‘the work force’ at the other. But that needs to be open and clear, that their education is a field to explore and not a single path to walk down to get a job.

I think it is dangerous in any field but especially in game development to just teach students what the students want to already learn as the students themselves are often setting themselves up for failure because of the popular opaqueness and misconceptions of the videogame industry. Students need to be guided. They need to be shown how the industry actually functions; they need to learn how to think critically and adapt to different tools and protocols (rather than learn the tools and protocols currently being used); they need to be taught the various ways in which the industry is messed up and oppressive and that there are alternative ways to make videogame or use their videogame development skills; they need to be taught what jobs actually exist! The number of students I get in Australia who have no idea they would have to move overseas if they want to work in triple-a! They need to learn all of this before they are in a position to be able to decide what direction they want to take their own game development skill specialisation.

Students need to be taught how to approach videogame development as a creative process. There’s some hard skills in particular software and programming languages, sure, but it’s also about how to be creative; how to form a community; how to think critically; how to research, develop, and communicate ideas; how to assess art and culture; how to start just making stuff already and not wait til you are good enough or ’employed’. How ‘getting employed’ is only one of the many ways you might use these skills and, even then, you’re very unlikely to get rich with these skills. Students need to be aware that they’ve signed up to become artists, essentially, with all that that entails.

The staff who teach and design game development courses think about all this stuff a lot, as Yang points out in his blog post. For me, it’s about being up front with students and ensure they understand the implications of studying in a creative area. It’s cutting through the rhetoric of playing with VR headsets and making Skyrim that may have convinced them to sign up in the first place. They need to know that a degree in game development is more akin to a degree in creative writing than a degree in IT. That doesn’t mean its worthless but that it is teaching you a particular cluster of skills and ways of thinking to be creative and critical in a certain field that could take you in any number of directions, not a direct path to simply ‘getting a job’ in a certain industry. The problem isn’t game development degrees not creating immediately employable graduates; the problem is students being led to believe that that is what they are going to get out of such a degree in the first place. And that’s a problem tied up with how these courses are marketed, how game development is publicly imagined more broadly, and how videogames themselves are publicly understood as ‘communication products’ instead of ‘cultural works’.

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