Reality is Borken* – How do we avoid the ‘Workification’ of Game Programming

For whatever reason, I was thinking of the Matrix just now**, and it hit me: All this talk of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and encouraging programming in schools was an embodiment of the needs of the parents/Government/IT Sector and not really that of the children. In the Matrix, Neo (and other escapees from a manufactured delusion) fight a system that wants them put in a pod, unwittingly contributing to a global economy – as batteries in the film, but you get what I mean – where even the illusion of personal choice is manufactured.

We need coders, lots of coders

Ian Livingstone OBE, life president of Eidos and recent recipient of a well deserved Develop Award for a lifetime achievement in Games, as well as some other guy (!) published the Livingstone-Hope Review eight months ago, which has been covered in great detail

Progress from this has been ‘slow’ if his recent presentation at the Develop Conference in Brighton in July is anything to go by, despite Michael Gove, UK Education Secretary, recently declaring that Games offer “huge potential for maths and science teaching”

Livingstone-Hope declared:

“Computer science must be part of the school national curriculum. The current curriculum includes ICT, but the authors of the report argue that ICT, with its focus on every day applications such as word processing, does not teach the valuable computer programming knowledge that is vital to high-tech industries such as videogames and visual effects.”


“Young people must be given more opportunity to study art and technology together.”

but both of these rely on what my tutor at Leeds, Dan McDade***, used to call a “utopian indicative”: if more children are exposed to ‘proper’ Computer Science in schools there will be a sudden and impressive flood of kids wanting to go into IT careers. It might be right. Might.

…it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself

The imposed homogeneity of a National Curriculum has been with us a long time – I decided to leave school teaching as a result of this and other silliness in the late 80s – but, sadly, there is no waking up from this particular rabbit hole. Even in universities, where you might assume because students have elected to be there, institutional pragmatism as well as ‘customer’ expectations dictate a passive sameness in Higher Education; this will only get worse as HE is increasingly commercialised. Students and staff alike are fearful of opportunities to diversify, for a variety of reasons. It’s hard to assess when there isn’t a level playing field. Learners are often ill-equipped to be pro-active in their own education. Everyone longs for the easy life of spoon-feeding, and those that fight it, face poor feedback, more headaches and longer hours.

…I can dodge bullets? …when you’re ready, you won’t have to.

The trick, of course, is to keep the ‘cool’ (if any beyond novelty) of games and, more challengingly, programming because of the huge difference between choosing what (and whether) to play and the stranger task of designing/making/coding games. Part of the problem is the big gap between what children can reasonably program and the polished products that they are used to consuming. The other issue is what I call ‘Workification’; the consistent transforming of something fun and creative into mindless drudgery by well-meaning, possibly desperate educators, trying to make important skills relevant to an apparently disaffected youth.

Tonight, Ian Livingstone is touting the Next Gen initiative, which is the update showing what has happened post Livingstone-Hope, due at the end of October but being raised on NewsNight early next week according to Livingstone:

Ian Livingstone (@ian_livingstone)
07/10/2011 15:41
Newsnight running a feature on Next Gen report on 10 October ahead of the response. Hope Mr Gove watches!

There are, apparently lots of positives, but I feel were we in HE have the biggest contribution to make is in supporting teacher continuing professional development (CPD) and training for the new beyond ICT curricula that the Creative Technology agenda will be asking for. That’s where I will be putting my efforts!


I’m thinking of writing a book, “Reality is Borken”, in which I expound at length about how amazingly creative technologies have been squandered in Education by being over-hyped, over-used and under-evaluated. Somehow, I don’t think Jane McGonigal is going to be writing the Foreword.

    * credit to Corrado Morgana, a colleague at my university for inspiring this title. Otherwise, I’d have gone with “Reality is NOT broken”, which doesn’t have the same ring.
    ** This is a classic case of work avoidance, because I started all this with a complety different altdevblog idea!
    *** Dan, if you’re reading this, I’ve forgiven you now for losing (and subsequently not marking) one of my PGCE essays, costing me the Distinction I was working towards. It taught me a lot, that particular lesson.

The ants pick the food, the ants eat the food, and the grasshoppers leave.

“Universities have been bashed over quality, relevance and value of computer games courses for too long. Like complaining that a cafe’s food is disgusting and the portion’s too small, now even schools appear to Gove, Livingstone, Hope and Braben et al to be failing. By turns it’s either too many or too few games, not enough programming, etc, that is to blame for the lack of a stream of compliant, skilled workers streaming from HE into the dark Satanic Mill of game development. Well, Education’s had enough. We aren’t training sweatshops. We don’t teach skills, we teach people. Now bog off and let us do our job!”

This is the summary and abstract for a talk I will be giving at Brains Eden in Cambridge on Monday 11th July.

The title is a quote from “A Bug’s Life”, but few know it was based not only on Kursowa’s “The Seven Samurai” (aka “The Magnificent Seven”) but also on one of my favourite Aesop’s Fables, The Ant and the Grasshopper, where an individual of a playful nature does little to sustain his existence, then expects to long serving collective to support him with resources.

The analogy should be clear. Ok, yes, this IS meant to be controverial. Deliberately so, as the organisers have asked me to be. For the past couple of years Games Eden have organised ‘Brains Eden’, a gaming festival designed to bring together industry, academia and students. This year it will revolve around a 48-hour Game Jam hosted at Anglia Ruskin University, with representatives from the local companies speaking on Monday on a range of subjects. However, what the schedule seemed to be missing was someone from academia to do a 15 minute talk; “the livelier and more controversial the subject matter the better.”

It’s a double edged sword, this “rocking the boat” malarkey. Not one I am unfamiliar with, even outside of games, having singlehandedly destroyed Higher Education on at least one occasion – according to the Daily Mail
and the Telegraph, though (sadly) not the News of the World – or started a revolution in 21st century university assessment – according to the Times Higher Ed Supplement (THES) and the Guardian – it’s cleary time to don the asbestos suit again. However, this time it has been planned. There is much that is right, or potentially so, with Industry getting involved with HE, although why anyone would think that some form of company sponsored national curriculum was a good idea I don’t know, or even with computer games revolutionising Education generally. So this blog post is more about airing the subject for debate. A proto rant. Do you think the Brabens, Livingstones and Hopes of this World are right? That we should return to an 80s (Thatcherite) approach to teaching programming in schools, in the forelorn hope it will ignite a new generation of bedroom coders – just like it didn’t in the actual 80s? Or that HE has been doing such a bad job of fitting the loyalty chips in the necks of serfs bound for indentured servitude at the nearest Triple-A studio that Industry, which has little or no pedagogical expertise or interest beyond easing the recruitment/staff turnover (burnout?) problem, should step in and “well and truly sort us out!” If so, comment here. It’ll all be good ammunition or target practice for me, when next week I’m thrown to the Lionheads; see what I did there?

It’s not just about Games, it’s far less serious than that.