Are games art school? How to teach game development when there are no jobs

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At the 2019 Game Developers Conference I gave a talk at the Education Summit called “Are games art school? How to teach game development when there are no jobs”. The video of the talk is available on the GDC Vault but unfortunately you need a subscription to access it. So instead, here is a write-up of what I talked about.

This talk is the convergence of a few different things. My current research on gamemaking cultures in Australia, my experience teaching game design in Australia, and the ‘indiepocalypse’ discourse throughout 2018 that often turned its wrath towards games education programs (I’ve spoken about that here and here). I feel like a lot of the conversations around how ‘useful’ game development education actually is misses the point that a game development education is, at the end of the day, the equivalent of studying poetry, and we need to account for that in our teaching.

This will be mostly interesting for game development educators and game development students. But those with an interest in the general ‘indiepocalypse’ literature might get something out of it, too.

One final caveat: you could easily critique some of what I’m talking about here as preparing students to accept the grim realities of precarious life in the gig economy rather than challenging it. My rebuttal would be that as horrible as the gig economy is and the neoliberal co-option of ‘creativity’ is destroying lives and dismantling the progresses of worker solidarity and social welfare, our students still have to eat and pay rent. People need long-term strategies for change and short-term tactics for survival. The focus of this talk is primarily about equipping students with short-term tactics. Destroying capitalism is beyond the scope of this 25-minute lecture.

Part One: The problem with how we teach game development

This talk is about how to approach teaching game development when there’s no jobs in game development. Firstly, I’m going to elaborate on that somewhat contentious claim, and then I’m going to talk about rethinking what types of futures we’re preparing our students for. Then I want to spend the last half outlining some really pragmatic things that I’ve done in a classroom that you might be able to learn from, to better prepare students for the futures they’re actually going to face.

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Some background about myself and the research underpinning this talk. I’m currently doing this large research project in Australia about the state of Australian videogame development. I’m doing a whole bunch of interviews with game developers and game development students about job opportunities and skill transferability and a number of other issues. With the students, I’m particularly interested in just what they understand about what kind of opportunities they have available after they graduate.

Before this current project, I taught for several years at a technical college in Brisbane, Australia, teaching game design specifically. The methods and approaches that I’ll be talking about in the second half of this talk are things I had to do in that environment with those students, who were very much gamer-oriented and very much wanted to go make Skyrim and Dark Souls, and who had no idea that didn’t happen in Australia.

Before that I did a creative writing undergrad major for some reason. Not the most intelligent choice for job opportunities, but I really liked poetry, and I really liked creative writing. I remember deciding, ‘look, I’ll just go do a degree in this because I really like it, and I’ll figure out what to do with it later. I’ll find something to do with these skills.’ That ‘something’ turned out to be games journalism, criticism, and eventually academia. I made something work from studying poetry.

And I think about the fact that I started in a creative writing degree learning how to write poetry quite a lot when I think about how we approach teaching game development. I think they’re largely the same thing. Learning game development is very similar to learning creative writing, or painting, or acting, by which I mean it’s an area where there aren’t really that many jobs. But I do worry that our students don’t really think about it in the same way that students in those other disciplines do. When I started a creative writing degree, I was very aware I wasn’t going to go get a job in a ‘creative writing’ industry just because I had a degree in creative writing. Sure I had dreams of success, but I also had a sense of the improbability of that success. So I wonder about how game development students think about their own studies and where they believe they are going with it. And I wonder just what we could be doing to help prepare them for the future they actually face.

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In the vast majority of places in the world where game development is taught, there are more game development students than there are game development jobs. Here are a few that I’ve managed to be able to find to back up that claim [sources link].

In Australia where I’m mainly focused, there’s a thousand people all up in the local games industry, and according to the Game Developers Association of Australia (GDAA), there’s approximately 5000 students enrlling in game development courses every single year in Australia. It’s not clear how they got to that number but even if it’s inflate, that still suggests a massive amount more students than there are actual jobs for people to obtain.

In the Netherlands, from a 2015 report, there’s about 2200 people employed by the local games industry in development roles, and there are 1600 graduates a year. That’s not as dire as the Australian situation, but that is still about two thirds of the industry’s worth of people graduating every single year, and I doubt the industry’s growing by that much every year.

In the UK, researchers found that there were fifteen hundred graduates in 2008, and that the industry only required about 130 or 230 new graduates for that year, so about ten percent of what was actually graduating.

And in the US, thanks to a HEVGA graduate survey that came out last week, that was 90% American respondents, only 54% of those respondents were actually employed in the games industry. So even in America where you’ve actually got large triple-a studios, half of all game development graduates are still going outside of the games industry to find employment after their studies.

Last year Jen McLean, then executive director of the IGDA, gave a talk where she estimated that there’s about 10,000 game design students worldwide—just game design.

So there are a lot of students studying game development.
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So for this reason, in part, we see a lot of suspicion from the games industry towards our programs.  This idea that we’re just exploiting our students, drawing them in with false pretences of a dream job just to take their enrolment fee. This sense that we’re just taking advantage of their passion for games, or for their enthusiasm about games, and that we’re not really telling them about the realities that they’re going to face.

This was a large part of the discourse this past year around the indiepocalypse narrative, this idea that the only people making any money from the rise of indie games is the schools.

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And of course, this is definitely something I’ve thought of myself as a teacher. I have absolutely wondered ‘is it ethical of me to teach all these students how to be game developers when I know there’s no jobs for them. Is this something that’s really problematic for me to be doing?’ I know I’m not the onl one.

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And ultimately, no, I don’t think it is unethical. I think this for the same reason I don’t think it was unethical for someone to teach me poetry. Because you don’t just study a creative discipline to get a job doing the creative discipline. You study the creative discipline and then you figure out what you’re going to do with those acquired skills later. There’s a whole range of directions you can go with those skills. And also, quite simply, university isn’t just a linear pipeline into a specific job. There’s other reasons you go to university and study. And obviously that’s going to be different in different cultural contexts, where university costs more or less.

But, when I talk to current students or recent graduates, many of them don’t really understand what their local games industry looks like. When I did a creative writing degree, I was like ‘I know I’m not gonna get a job as a poet.’ I knew that was the situation. But I don’t think the same is true for our game development students. I think they do think they will get a job in game development, even if that’s not the reality for the majority of them. So I think what they’re focusing on in their studies, at a real base level what it means to study in this discipline, isn’t quite in the right place. I think that is something we urgently need to think about as educators. Our students are aiming themselves towards jobs that don’t exist.

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So where do our graduates end up then? Purely anecdotally, these are just some of the places I know my own students have ended up. Some are in the games industry, many are in adjacent industries, whether they are applying their technological skills or creative skills. That might be web development or graphic design or just all sorts of other places.

The recent HEVGA survey has an appendix of where people have ended up outside of the games industry. It might be small up there but there’s about 30% in technology, 30% in education, and just 1% in a whole bunch of other industries and places. Game development graduates are ending up all over the place. Which means I don’t think the solution here is to prepare our students for other specific industries instead of the games industry. Rather, I think we need to prepare our students for having no idea where they’re going to end up. For having to really figure it out on the fly both during and after their degree.

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I’m essentially saying that we need to prepare our students to be entrepreneurs. I don’t like that word at all but for a 30-minute talk I’ll let it do a lot of heavy lifting for me. To stress, I don’t mean entrepreneurs in the kind of neoliberal buzzword TED-talk silicon-valley style, but in the more traditional way that musicians have been entrepreneurs for a lot longer than tech bros have. I mean it in the way that musicians have had to figure out how to just live and make enough money to get by as musicians for centuries.

Essentially game developers and game development graduates are much more like that than they are software engineers or IT specialists or accountants. They’re entrepreneurs in that they have a creative skill set, they have some technical skills, some problem solving skills, some critical thinking skills. They’re just going to need to figure out ‘how do I not starve to death with these skills?’

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Part Two: What students need to understand about being a game developer

So that means game school is art school. We’re art school in the sense that we’re training people with a creative skillset, and we need to prepare them for the inevitably uncertain future of being a creative person. We often don’t focus on that because I guess we’re concerned about ‘job-readiness’ and wanting to not scare away students—or wanting to not scare away parents, maybe more importantly. But I think it shoots ourselves in the foot a little bit.

The students who are the most ‘work-ready’ (not ‘job-ready’) generally start with this acceptance that this is the sort of uncertainty that they’re getting in to. The ones that are most driven to actually do the work of being a game development graduate are the ones who know they’re probably not just going to walk into a job at Ubisoft or EA.

The major issue that we need to deal with: our students don’t know they’ve signed up for a poetry degree. And often we don’t acknowledge as teachers that our students have signed up for a poetry degree.

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So we need to focus on making our students ‘work-ready’ rather than ‘job-ready’, because we can’t predict just what jobs they will end up with in any consistent manner.

The students I’ve seen have the most successes as game developers—be that finding any job or be that getting some form of recognition for the games they make—are the students who act like they’re already game developers. Because they are. You don’t need a degree to be game developer. I would tell this to students regularly. If you think you’re just going to get a degree and then get a job, that’s not how it works. They need to act like they already are game developers because they are already game developers.

My most successful students make their own games, not just the games we tell them to make for assignments. They release their games publicly, using websites like itch.io or Gamejolt. They don’t just hoard them all on their own hard drives. They contribute to a local game dev community. And by contribute I don’t just mean like hand out a million business cards to everyone at their monthly meetups, but actually try to contribute to fostering that local community.

And they don’t have naturally good ideas. I think this is really important. I’m not just talking about naturally talented students, because ‘natural talent’ doesn’t really exist. I’m talking about students that develop a good process of iteration and ideation and actually do the work of game development. By which I don’t just mean develop games, but do the work of game development on this kind of everyday, low down level.

So now I want to turn to the ways that I approach helping students better take on this mindset of already being a game developer, and to approach their craft in this manner. The ways I try to help them get into a position where they can do this more readily. What follows is particularly from my experience teaching at a very vocationally-minded technical college in Australia, where the students would often enter their studies with a goal like ‘I wanna be a creative director at EA’ without really understand just what that means or how to even get there.

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So for my students to become work-ready in this manner, I need to ensure they understand three things. The sooner I could get my students to understand these three things, the better chance they had of getting the most out of a game development education, that in turn would let them do something with this degree that would actually be valuable for them.

1. I need to ensure they understand what they have actually signed up for, as early as possible. By this I mean the fact that they’d signed up for a creative degree, not a software degree. I think a lot of our students think studying game development is the same as studying programming, or the same as studying software development. But it’s not. Again I would say that it’s closer to studying poetry, or creative writing, or acting, or painting. The skills are slightly more transferrable, but it’s essentially in that ballpark. Even if they’re doing games programming, I would argue that they’re still squarely in that creative field of skills, and that means they need to approach their studies with a certain mindset.

2. Because it’s a creative degree, they can just start being the thing right now. Again, they don’t need a degree to be a game developer. They can just start developing games! It’s not like being an accountant, or a surgeon. You can’t be a surgeon unless you’re qualified to be a surgeon, thankfully, but you don’t need to be qualified to be a game developer. You just need to develop games.

3. They need to understand what they can actually do with a game development skillset after they graduate. And that means understanding what a game development skillset actually is (which comes back around to the first point). It’s not just a set of technical skills, it’s not just being able to use Unity or Unreal or make your own game engine. It’s about being able to think in a certain way. It’s about being able to solve certain kinds of problems. It’s about being able to communicate ideas in certain kinds of ways.

So those are the three main things I want my students to understand about their studies. I want them to understand this as early in their degree as possible, so that it influences everything they do throughout their degree. I want them to be thinking about what kind of future they have in mind, and not narrowly just focusing on getting a job in the game industry, which I think really just prevents them from exploring a full spectrum of opportunities they’ll have available to them.

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Part Three: How to prepare students in three simple steps

Now I’m going to focus on three concrete things I would do in the classroom that I think other teachers might be able to draw from in order to really imbue this mindset for students. The point of these three things in particular is that they’re very grassroots, and very moment-to-moment in the classroom. Regardless of how your course is marketed (which is an issue a lot of us face), and regardless of the demographics you have in your class, and regardless of how the curriculum development may or may not be out of your control, you should be able to draw from these tactics to help your students. I will keep them quite general since we’re all in such different contexts, but I’ll also draw from my own experiences as hopefully useful examples.

So the three suggestions I have are:

1. Focusing on process over product

2. Changing the classroom canon, and

3. Helping students transition from a gamer mindset to a game developer mindset.

All three of these are very interconnected, none of them really come before the others, and they’re all very closely intermingled together.

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1. Process over product

A lot of gamedev students start with this mindset that they need to learn the right way to make a videogame, and then they can make a videogame. You get the skills, and then you do it. This wouldn’t make sense in a poetry degree. I keep coming back to this corny metaphor, I know, but you don’t spend two years learning how to write poetry and then write a poem in your final year as a capstone project. But traditionally that’s how we run our games programs! Quite often students spend multiple years learning how to make games, and then once they get to their capstone project they finally make that game for their portfolio piece. This is the wrong approach. Students shouldn’t be focused on producing a product, but on developing a process.

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Students think they’ll learn how to make Skyrim and then they’ll make Skyrim, and that will be their trajectory as a game developer. But ultimately they should be trying to make a small, trashy game like this. That’s the first game I made, you can find it on my itch.io page. I was very proud of this. A student should be trying to make this, and then make something slightly better than this, and then twenty years later they’re hopefully making something slightly better than that.

Students can’t wait until they know how to make games before they start making games. They have to start making games in order to learn how to make games. But there’s all sorts of challenges that come with that. For instance, students don’t realise it’s possible and acceptable to make a game like this. They often have this very narrow and strict idea of not just what a good videogame is, but what any videogame is. If you ask them to name a small videogame, they’ll probably name something like Binding of Isaac or Celeste, these still quite large productions. They need to learn quite quickly that just making small trashy things isn’t only okay, but is very valuable in terms of developing their own craft.

So I would have this mantra that I would use in class. I would say that videogames aren’t refrigerators. The idea is that a refrigerator does one thing: it keeps food cold, and if it doesn’t keep food cold then it’s a bad refrigerator. Whereas videogames aren’t that simple. They don’t just do one thing, they don’t just ‘be fun’ or ‘tell a story’ or ‘immerse you in a world’. Videogames can do any range of things, so you shouldn’t just be measuring your own videogame’s worth against one arbitrary measure to decide whether or not your own videogame is good.

So more broadly: videogames express ideas. If your videogame expresses the idea you want it to express, you’ve made a good videogame! It doesn’t matter if it is made in the ‘correct’ way (there is no right way!) so long as it expresses what you want it to express. If you can get your students to realise this, it radically changes what they think it is permissible and possible for them to do.

First, you need to get them to actually just not be afraid to touch the tools. An example: I used to run a unit that was right at the start of their degree. It was technically a theory subject called ‘Principles of Game Design’. None of the students were doing the preparation tasks I was setting, so I got rid of those and instead set a weekly ‘make a thing’ task, which was based on a make-a-thing game jam some other lecturers were running between semesters.

Essentially I told students to ‘show me you’ve touched a game making tool, and make something before next week’. And that ‘something’ could be a roll-a-ball tutorial in Unity, it could be a Bitsy or a Twine game, they could just muck around with Probuilder, I don’t care. Just show me you’ve done something. And if you don’t know how to make a build yet, cool. Just upload the whole project and I’ll run it in class, or record your screen with your phone and send me the video, I don’t care. I just wanted to make as low a barrier as possible to my students just touching some tools and just start doing the process of game development. And they all just made these really broken glitchy things and were really proud of them because everyone else in class was doing it as well. They were realising that they could just star making games, even if they didn’t know how to yet.

So this then helped build onto a later subject I was teaching, which was a studio-based class where design and programming students had to actually make games based on briefs that I set. So I would make sure my briefs focussed on the expression of an idea, rather than the technical proficiency of the particular software. I would set briefs such as ‘make a game about home’. Or we would go to a local art gallery, and I would instruct them to ‘choose any artwork in this art gallery and adapt it into a videogame’. And I was very broad about what that meant, like they could do whatever they want with it, as long as they could justify why they had done that. And we made a musicvideogame, where they had to work with the audio students on campus who were doing the audio degree, take one of their songs and make an interactive music video with it.

These briefs all really challenged what aspects of videogame development students were being assessed on. It moved evaluation away from a very sort of narrow, formal, commercial feasibility idea towards instead my students’ ability to develop and express an idea through the language of videogames.

I would set other limitations like ‘no longer than 5 minutes’ for some of these briefs, just to force students to really focus on expressing an idea. And what this ultimately achieves is that they end up making a ‘videogame about x’, and not just ‘a bad student version of x videogame’. Often a student games ends up being ‘a bad student version of Dark Souls’, or ‘a bad student version of Binding of Isaac‘. Those sorts of student projects will always be compromised; it will never be as good as the original game with the resources of a real studio, or the timeframe that a real studio has.

Those are not metrics that a student should be comparing their own worth against. Instead, they should be making a videogame that expresses an idea that they wanted to express, and they should be really proud of themselves for actually doing that. So it’s no longer a compromised videogame, or a ‘student videogame’, it’s just an actual videogame that says the thing its creator wants it to say, and they’re often really proud about that.

(As an aside, others have also made a similar point, such as the game-a-week process that I know Douglas Wilson, Bennet Foddy, and Michael McMaster have talked about at previous GDCs)

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2. Changing the classroom canon

There’s a crucial reason, however, why students don’t know they can just create a little game that expresses an idea and be proud of that. Students typically have a very limited experience of what videogames actually exist. They all probably know about Dark Souls. If I’m lucky they’ve heard of a game like Celeste, but very very few of them would have heard of a game like Triad by Anna Anthropy, which is just about three lovers trying to sleep on a bed with a cat. And even fewer would have heard of a game engine like Bitsy which can make these short narrative based games without any coding.

I think the games that we show our students in the classroom sets the tone of what counts as an acceptable game for them to in turn go and make themselves. If we want our students to think it’s acceptable to make a little 5 minute game that expresses something really personal, we need to show them that a short 5 minute personal game has value. The games we’re showing them in class are implicitly examples of good games.

So I created a rule for my own classes in terms of what games I would use on my curriculum. I wouldn’t ask students to engage with any game that:

  • cost more than $5
  • took longer than an hour to play, or
  • couldn’t be played on a basic PC or smartphone.

These rules would force students to think differently about the games that I would get them to play in class. They weren’t just performing their gamer capital and showing me they knew how much damage-per-second some weapon has in some game that they last played 5 years ago. They were playing this game usually for the first time because I told them to play it to become better game developers. They would immediately enter a more ‘designer’ mindset rather than a ‘gamer’ mindset.

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It also introduces students to important ‘non-gamer’ games without making a big deal of it. So I would use Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia in Week 2 to talk about mechanics. Not in like the ‘queer games week’ or the ‘personal games week’. But just as like ‘here is Dys4ia; it has mechanics; let’s talk about mechanics’. This is really valuable for the non-gamer students in the class to see early in their studies. It challenges the perceived (but not real) expertise of the gamer students. It also, I find, makes the gamer students who would maybe be more hostile to a ‘queer game’ more open to it when it is covertly introduced in a week like ‘mechanics’.

Using games in the classroom made by individuals or small teams helps game developers seem more human. An Assassins Creed game developed by a whole campus-sized Ubisoft is a big black box of very specific roles. Unless you’ve worked in that environment, you have no idea how such a big project has actually come together. But if you play a small game made by one person, you can see their grubby fingerprints all over it. You can probably see their work-in-progress gifs on Twitter, next to a picture of their pet. You can see the rough edges and the glitches that don’t make the game any less powerful in what ideas it is expressing.  That makes being a game developer seem something much more closer to a student’s own current reality that they’re currently living in and they’re currently making games in. You can make videogames now because you don’t actually need 500 people and cutting-edge technology to make a ‘good’ videogame.

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3. Transitioning from a ‘gamer’ mindset to a ‘game developer’ mindset.

The fact that videogames are artistic works made by human creators brings us to my third point, which is that this approach to teaching game development is ultimately about making our students understand that they are game developers already, rather than just people who love games—in other words, the ‘gamers’ that they were when they start their course.

This is what the marketing used to look like at the college that I used to teach at. For the film degree they show that you’ve got a camera rig and lights and that thing people use to say ‘action!’ and the director’s chair. Things you use to make a film, or at least things you associate with making a film.

On the other hand, this was how the games degree was represented. You’ve got a couch, a pizza box, a PlayStation 3, and some pixel art, and it says ‘pwn the competition’. This is clearly marketing to ‘gamers,’ not to game developers. I think that’s very common across most programs, where we get students who are attracted to our colleges and our courses because they love videogames as consumers, not necessarily as developers. So they’re not even starting at ground zero, as a completely novice gamemaker. They’re starting at minus five, as a consumer that doesn’t even understand that consuming isn’t the same as making, and we’ve gotta get them up to zero before we can do anything else.

(As an aside, this is also why I think those of our students who don’t come from a gamer background actually often are at an advantage in our courses, which is really interesting to think about.)

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This point really just comes down to the conversations you have with students in your classroom, and just your moment-to-moment interactions with them. I think it’s really important when you’re talking to students to talk to them like they already are game developers because, again, they already are game developers. That means highlighting the similarities between what they do and what they think of as ‘real’ game developers do.

An example I always come back to is when No Man’s Sky came out I had a group of students that were working on their own game, and they were all just complaining about how Hello Games lied because this and that feature wasn’t in the game. Just very typical gamer talk. I knew they’d recently pivoted and removed a feature of their own game because of some very mundane, totally acceptable reason. I said to them ‘oh so you lied to me when you said you were going to have this feature?’. And they were like ‘oh no we didn’t lie we just had merge conflicts and we had this person who was sick and the animator rigged this thing badly and blah blah blah’. And I just wanted to get them to see that what Hello Games was doing wasn’t really any different to what they were doing. Stuff happens and you just have to pivot over the course of the process of creating a videogame, because that’s the creative process. I wanted to get them to understand that those changes and that compromise isn’t just because you’re a student, but that’s just what game development is. It is pivoting and it is figuring out moment-to-moment how you actually make this thing work.

Moving beyond talking to them like they already are game developers, helping students make this identity transition, means talking to students about industry news. By industry news I don’t mean ‘Oh wow did you see the new trailer at E3? How cool was that because I’m a gamer and you’re a gamer and that’s cool that we can talk about that!’ But like talking about the fact that Activision-Blizzard just laid off hundreds of people, or that unionisation is being talked about at GDC. Or about how Rockstar Games is talking about Red Dead Redemption‘s developers. Or what it means when a boss asks you to do ‘voluntary crunch’. This is about thinking about what sort of identities and conversations are you expecting in your classroom, and what identities and conversations you are fostering.

And especially talk about the local game industry! What is going on in your own town, and what isn’t going on in your own town just as importantly. What small indie games are being made there if there’s no AAA studios? If there are no AAA studios, make sure your students are aware of that, and just help them generally understand what does game development actually looks like in their own context.

I think really importantly this also just gives students the opportunity to consider if they even want to actually develop games, or if they just ended up in this program because they love playing games and they’re 18-years-old and they couldn’t figure out what else they wanted to do with their life yet. I think it’s really important to give students that opportunity to just get out if they do want to get out, I think that’s a really important thing to do. Our campus managers probably don’t like hearing that, but I think it is our responsibility as teachers to provide those exit opportunities.

Another part of this is ensuring that students release most of their games publicly wherever possible. We wouldn’t get students to submit their games to us directly. Instead they would upload them to itch.io and then send us the link. Then we would give them feedback on how well they were presenting that game publicly, and if they said in the bio that this was ‘a student project’ we would tell them to go back and not say that but just say ‘this is my game about x’. They should own it and be proud of it because they’re already a game developer.

Often when they put a game up on itch.io some Youtuber with 5 subscribers will play it, and that’ll be just really exciting for the student. Someone outside of the classroom played a game they made! So then they’ll make another game, and it’s just a really valuable way to get students to start being really self-driven with their practice, and really self-confident in their craft, in a way that is much more helpful for the unpredictable futures they’re facing, than just preparing them for a job that doesn’t exist for them.

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So those are just three things you can do in the classroom, in a real moment-to-moment setting, to help make students more work-ready by building their confidence. It helps students realise ‘oh I can already make games’ and ‘the games I’m making now are worthy as games, not just as student projects’.

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To wrap up: game development is a creative discipline. We can’t really get away from that, and that means game development comes with all the precarity and the unpredictability that comes with trying to make a living in any creative discipline under neoliberal capitalism. So we need to prepare our students to be self-driven, but also collectively-minded as part of their own local community. They need to be confident, critical, and versatile. Be more honest, with your students and with yourself, about what it really means to be studying videogame development so that you’re better preparing students for the futures that they’re actually going to need to confront.

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