Mastering the Games-Ed

(Written at nearly 4 a.m., when the mind is less attentive to details. 
Please forgive the typos or other errors which I'm sure I've made.)

At “Mastering the Game” in Warsaw, I promised to write an English summary of my position from the Polish-speaking panel debate. Its topic: “How should higher education in Poland be modified to address the needs of the game industry?” It was moderated by Maciej Miąsik, a game dev veteran, board member at Indie Games Poland Foundation, and also lecturer at Warsaw Film School and Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology. Speakers included Maciej Szcześnik, another game dev vet and Game Design lecturer at Warsaw Film School; Krzysztof Kalinowski, Graphic Art lecturer at Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology; Daniel Sadowski, CEO at Nitreal Games and Game Development specialisation program director & lecturer at Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology; Remigiusz Kopoczek, COB at ARP Games and Assistant Professor at University of Silesia; and myself as Assistant Professor and founder of Gamedec: Game Studies & Design at Kazimierz Wielki University.

I came from Mastering the Game directly to Huuuge Game Jam, where I am sitting right now. The jammers are jamming, gamedec volunteer staff are on their watch, and I have nothing else to do but stay here for 24 hrs as the token staff member on the org team. So why not spend a part of this night on delivering what I promised? Let’s go through my thoughts on questions asked by the moderator.

How do you assess the state of games-ed in Poland?


I don’t. Mine is a humanities-based approach: a small niche among game-focused degree programmes. We know of only three such degrees in Poland, which should be discussed on case-by-case basis. Generalisations about the state of games-ed can be made about the IT and Art sector (programming, animation, digital art), which is not my area of expertise. I’d rather leave this question for people from the industry.

What are you involved in or what is currently happening in your region?

As an addition to my full-time job as Assistant Professor in English Studies, I created a Game Studies & Design specialisation path for the new B.A. in Humanities 2.0 launched in 2013. Our programme was oriented at hands-on practice, teamwork and skill-building, and got positive evaluations from game dev specialists. We have closely collaborated with digital and non-digital game companies all the way: internships, guest lectures, participation in industry events, game dev professionals hired as instructors, industry feedback and mentoring, you name it. We have won two NCBiR grants to fund paid traineeships. So far, two student cohorts have gone through the three-year cycle, and 56,8% of them have found full-time employment in the industry before graduation.

We have prepared three new curricula: Gamedec.UKW as a fully independent degree (no longer a specialisation path) plus two international post-grad programmes combining English Studies with Game Design. Sadly, their implementation is stalled by the uncertainty of new regulations on degree programmes, and by the general uncertainty of the fate of the whole reform of higher-ed developed by the Ministry. It’s not a good time for long-term investment when you don’t know what rules for funding, employment, career paths, authorisation etc. will be in force two years from now. However, we can - and will - use the “gap year” to maximise the quality of our curricular designs in collaboration with other games-ed edu-institutions and game dev companies. More info about this project will come soon.

What is missing from the currently available education? What should be introduced?

There is one good practice from abroad I’d love to have introduced here: certification by the industry. In the UK, if you have an edu-programme (any level: university or school) that trains practical skills for work in the creative industries, you can get an official certification (“Tick”) from Creative Skillset. The “Tick” is a quality stamp which tells prospective students and employers that experienced industry professionals have examined this programme and found it good. Beside certification, the Creative Skillset company does similar stuff to our Indie Games Poland Foundation: market research, support for small and developing studios, collaboration with edu-institutions etc. There is no doubt in my mind that IGP F could easily add such certification to their list of activities. I’m going to talk to them about it.

Another thing I’d happily welcome is the addition of Level 5 educational degree to the Polish system. There are eight reference levels in the European Qualifications Framework. Levels 6, 7 and 8 are Bachelor, Master and Doctor, Level 4 is high-school graduation diploma (“maturity exam”), but Level 5 has no established degree or certificate. What we have in between the secondary school (Level 4) and college-level undergrad degrees (Level 6) is a variety of post-high-school courses in many formats and shapes. The introduction of 2-year short-cycle degrees (like associate degrees abroad) is being considered by higher-ed authorities, and I sincerely hope to see it bear fruit asap. Our practice shows that 2 years is enough to train people for employment in game dev.

I’d also love to see the format of dual (work-study) degrees like those common in Germany, with education provided jointly by a university and employer. Good news: the project of the new Act on Higher Education creates this opportunity.

What are the major obstacles hampering the development of existing programmes, or blocking the implementation of new things?

From where I sit at a small state-funded (i.e. chronically underfunded) university, the biggest obstacle is lack of money. For the first four years under Professor Mariusz Zawodniak (the creator of Humanities 2.0), I was fortunate to have never faced any obstacles from the superior or university administration, or any serious problems with red tape. I was given green light to write the curriculum, pick teaching staff, search for industry partners, and generally run the whole Gamedec spec-path as I wanted. The only thing I felt we lacked was money. The budget for the launch of Humanities 2.0 was zero. No budget to participate in industry events, or return travel costs to guest lecturers from other cities, or marketing expenses. We – the teaching staff – threw in a lot of our own money and unpaid time to do all this.

Insufficient money also translated to understaffing. Not even one person was hired as Gamedec staff for the first two years. In the first year, all gamedec classes were taught as overtime by four people who already had full-time + overtime positions at English Studies. In the second year, we were joined by a few industry professionals hired to teach several design labs on hour-based contracts. It was not until the third year that we finally got one full-time teaching position for Gamedec. We wouldn’t have any problems with finding more qualified instructors willing to work with us - but we repeatedly failed in convincing the university to create new jobs.

Understaffing led to another problem: heavy work overload for those UKW staff who got involved in Humanities 2.0 in addition to being employed full-time at a different unit. For me and Mikołaj Sobociński, who took it upon ourselves to do all the necessary (and also unnecessary but useful) organisational work, it meant permanent crunch time all week long, all year round.

So these are apparently three problems: no budget, not enough staff, and too much work for a person. But it actually all boils down to one: money. The permacrunch was a result of understaffing, and understaffing was caused by the poor financial condition of the university. And when you look for the root cause, it is also money that stalls the implementation of the new degree programmes we have prepared. A while ago, I said that what had stalled us was the uncertainty of the new higher-ed reform - but think about it: this uncertainty means the university cannot afford to risk a long-term investment. But if it could, even the uncertainty wouldn't be a problem.

Is there a conflict between industry education and research work?

This is a fundamental conflict for staff whose responsibilities include both research and teaching: how to divide time between the two. Teaching always eats up time from research.  When I am writing an education grant for paid traineeships for students, I am not writing a research grant. When I am attending an industry event to find more opportunities for students, I am not attending an academic conference. Unless your research work is in pedagogy-related fields (in which case you can use your own teaching as the object of research), each time slot spent on education-related work means one slot less for research.

Fortunately, the opposite is not true. Research work can be beneficial for practical education, because it generates knowledge which may be applied in practice. For example, my academic work in narratology uses structural and dynamic models of storyworlds, characters and plots. Even if such frameworks are initially built for academic analysis, they can immediately be translated to design models and tools. And there is a lot of applied research which is intended to guide practical applications. For example, psychological and pedagogical research on learner’s motivation is supposed to guide the teacher’s work in the classroom and the instructional designer’s work on school textbooks, lesson plans and exercises. And can be equally useful for designers of educational games.

There is also one sad aspect of combining research and teaching: teaching is nearly worthless for your academic career. What matters is your research output: publications, research grants, international research collaboration etc. Your teaching achievements are of marginal importance, and - paradoxically - may even be viewed negatively by your superiors. Because if you spent so much time on education, you’ve been neglecting your research duties.

Are there any major dangers looming in the future?

I see a serious danger in the text of the new Act on Higher Education recently released by the Ministry. I wrote a lengthy comment on the Act on my blog some time ago, so I’ll spare you the details here. In general, the new Act has many good regulations for science (research), but it’s horrible for education.

First of all, it perpetuates the bad practice of insanely large number of required teaching hours. A standard teaching-only (non-research) position comes with 360 or 540 hours per year (12 or 18 per week). How much real work is spent in total, including preparation, documentation, grading etc.? American Faculty Association put a number: the total workload is +2 extra hours per each 1 h in class, if you have already taught this course before. If you haven’t, the extra time is +4 h per 1 h in class. So if an industry professional comes to teach at the university for the first time, his/her workload for a full-time 540 h job with 18 h in the classroom per week makes 18 x 5 = 90 h of weekly workload...  Typically, a game dev specialist would like to teach at the university once or twice a week in the afternoon, when they are free from the basic job. 4 to 6 hours a week, that’s what makes sense for them. But if this is only one-third of the full-time workload, s/he will get one-third of the usual (already-low) salary.

That’s a related thing: decent payment for industry professionals who come to teach at the university. They hardly ever have PhD, many of them – especially the IT people – never even cared to follow a Master degree. This puts them in the lowest wage sector. Yes, it is possible to convince the university authorities to raise the wages, but this counts as a special case. You need to ask and argue, you don’t know if you succeed, and when you finally do - you can’t be sure if it lasts beyond the current academic year. That’s hardly a satisfying solution. I’d like to see a normal – not special – payroll scale based on the amount of industry experience as equivalent of academic degree. For example, 1 year of industry experience = equiv. of Master, 3 years = PhD, 5 years = Professor.

Possibly the worst thing in the text of the new Constitution for Higher Education is the deep subjugation of education to research. The institution’s right to open and run degree programmes will directly depend on the assessment of research outputs. The quality of programme, teaching staff or educational achievements will not matter at all. Worse still, the budget granted by the Ministry will no longer be divided into separate pools for research and education. The university will use this budget as they see fit. It’s not a bad idea in itself. It becomes bad when the whole system is heavily rigged in favour of research outputs. It will be unwise to spend any extra money on education if you can use this money for research. So, if there’s going to be one combined budget, we can expect education to be even more underfunded than it is.

Is there any role of government agencies in the development of education for game dev?

Oh yes, and I already pointed at many such things. First of all, they should remove these toxic ideas (see above) from the new reform.

Then, they should make the new regulations friendly towards university-industry collaboration. Introduce dual work-study degrees and short-cycle associate degrees (level 5). Offer flexible rules for creation and modification of edu-programmes. Offer decent employment and payment conditions for industry professionals who become teachers. Also, encourage big business to fund or co-fund research & teaching centers at academic institutions, like LEGO did with the PEDAL research at Cambridge. That’ll work not just for game dev but for any higher education focused on employability in an industry.

When I think about government-led efforts specifically addressed to game dev education, I would love to see a wise funding mechanism. Be it a high-performance computer lab, or a new job post, or game dev traineeships for promising students - all these could be funded by government grants to support the launch of good games-ed programmes. By “good” I mean reviewed and endorsed by the industry (see above: Creative Skillset certification).

Final thought

Are any of these grand visions realistic? Achievable in the near future? I think yes. Some of the desirable things are already on the way. Some are easy-to-do and just need the will to act on the part of the industry - and the willingness is there. The recent history of collaboration in the triangle of industry - government - academia looks promising. For the first time I can remember, there is willingness to collaborate on all three sides. But let's not get overenthusiastic about it. Yes, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education is already providing support for the video game industry. But no Ministry representative bothered to show up for the panel. And I can't imagine how they could develop good solutions for games-ed without listening to the industry and games-ed educators. Admittedly, even with expert collaboration, the design of systemic solutions may always fall below expectations. But if I needed someone for design of complex systems, I would first call game developers. Let's just hope the decision-makers do the same.