Games, Gandhi and Wrecked Trains – the Unedited version

Recently, I had the honour of writing the guest editorial for Vol2, No.1 of the Computer Games Journal, but the style was a bit mangled by “gramatical error correction”, so I thought it best to reproduce the unedited version here. Please go and read the official version too. Please note, all rights reserved by the Computer Games Journal.

Games, Gandhi and Wrecked Trains
By Dr. Mike Reddy FRSA, University of South Wales
By the time you read this one of the best Games degrees in the UK at the University of Wales Newport will be no more. (Mind you, the institution itself won’t exist by then, due to Welsh Assembly Government imposed restructuring and institutional mergers.) I say, with some conviction, that this award was one of the best, not to boast – it was more the achievements and commitment of the students than it was those of the teaching staff, evidenced by a string of achievements, including BAFTA nominations, Dare to be Digital awards, international recognition of a number of graduate-seeded Indie developers, and an enviable employment rate in the UK Games Industry, reported in the Games Press when the closure of the award was announced – but to mourn its passing, and as a warning that being the best does not save an award from closure, even though it is acknowledged that universities in the UK have an over-provision of games related awards, if direct employment in the industry is the main factor.

The BSc in Games Development and A.I. began in late 2004 and lasted just under a decade, during most of which I had the honour to be teaching some of the many specialist modules; at the end, I was the only lecturer and programme leader, due to redundancies and funding council cuts in what we now recognise is a retracting HE sector. When I arrived at Newport in 2005 I knew I had my work cut out for me; my mission was to raise the standard of the award so it would survive the inevitable (to me) deflation of vocational awards aimed at the Creative Industries, when promised graduate employment did not materialise for many. Not that Newport’s BSc degree, designed by a colleague and friend Dr. Shane Lee, was not appropriate, but because like many novice institutions, we lacked the recognition and industry support, made more difficult by not being geographically situated at an existing cluster of game developers. Another factor was preparation for Skillset accreditation, but mostly we needed to consider graduate employability in a fiercely competitive first jobs market.

The games media were (and are) full of criticism of games courses as being “bums on seats”, under resourced, and out of date. Common complaints from Industry were lack of real experience of the team-based nature of games development and the inability to specialise in the homogenous learning environment of a university (made worse in some institutions by the majority of modules being shared with other computing awards, due to economies of scale more than naked duplicity) when careers in games development were strongly disciplined. Graduate recruitment, conservatively forecast by some spokespeople at 25%, was considered the gold standard for evaluating an institution’s worth; not unreasonably, given that networking and “whom you know” is a common trait of many creative industries. After hard won consultations with several prominent development studios, the need for direct experience of cross-disciplinary development practices in large groups was identified as essential for Newport graduates, along with exposure to standard Industry practices. However, such heterogeneous experience was at odds with traditional, standardised individual HE assessment.

Collaboration over the last ten years with a variety of lecturers on the BA Games Design degree – thankfully not yet under threat of closure – has proven that it is possible to provide relevant experience despite the obstacles: the culture clash between students from disparate disciplines; the emphasis on process rather than product; and the need for fair assessment of individual performance; and the necessity of the importance of pipelines for production. The first year we ran the train wreck module, was as a result of ESF KEF Innovation Strategy Funding, which oiled the machinery of inter-departmental politics; as we had received external resources, eyes were on us to achieve collaboration, when traditional animosities between disciplines might otherwise have prevented such a venture. It helped when the external evaluator for the KEF programme identified Newport’s part as an “example of best practice” in collaboration, and it must be said that friction between the lecturers delivering this shared teaching was non-existent, but was apparent in attitudes of colleagues and some managers.

Thus was born what Newport games lecturers proudly referred to as “the train wreck module”, where traditionally about twelve BSc and thirty BA Year 2 students were involved. Participants were assigned to four or five groups, usually consisting of 2-3 programming students with 7-9 Arts students, a typical balance in the industry. The groups were allocated previously designed game proposals, most often coming from existing game designers in the Industry; some former graduates. Groups were then encouraged to allocate members to distinct roles: BA students were responsible for team management, interpretation of the design briefs and game assets development, while BSc students focussed upon tool development and game implementation. Lecturers acted in the role of producers, with responsibility for approving and signing off work on a weekly basis. This structure lasted until last year, being assessed by individual reflective accounts, portfolios of assets and game files, as well as formal group presentations. All students provided evidence for assessment via construction diaries and traditional meeting minutes. Cross marking was, originally performed by the two lecturers, providing a further level of inter-school collaboration.

Consultation with Industry representatives acting as mentors to the teams, usually having provide the original live briefs for the teams, confirmed that this approach to providing vocationally focussed experience for both Arts and Computing students was perceived as being directly relevant and uniquely effective in addressing many concerns by potential employers about games courses provided by HE institutions. Students did not always enjoy the team experience, but also provided positive feedback on the process. Ability to specialise within a heterogeneous team, with additional experience of large group work was extremely valuable in producing rounded graduates, better able to promote these skills in their search for employment. The approach required a large amount of good will, being difficult to timetable to provide time and resources to students from two different schools, but the results more than outweighed the obstacles.

Participants have universally agreed after the module, and in some cases a long time after, that the train wreck module was one of the most useful experiences of their academic careers. It certainly prepared them for interviews and even the Dare to be Digital competition; Newport was the first, and possibly only institution outside of the organisers, Abertay University, to have two teams accepted in one year, and has an impressive 75% success rate in being accepted into the competition, when only 16 teams are selected each year out of over 100 applications. It must be re-emphasised that these results were primarily a reflection of the student participants, but not without some resistance and occasional animosity.

As Freire pointed out in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” the most ardent advocates of the status quo are often those with the most to gain by constructive criticism of the ‘norm’. Our experience at Newport was that many, if not most, students actively resisted the ideas behind the train wreck module: notably working with the ‘other’ (Artists and Programmers exhibiting an unusual degree of antagonism towards each other); restricted creative freedom (working to implement the idea of another designer, which would likely be the norm in a typical development environment for a recent graduate); the group product rather than individual effort (measured by quality rather than quantity), and the importance of a work-inspired simulation over standard academic assessment (the idea of being ‘employed’ by the lecturer, rather than effectively employing them, through the payment of student fees).

Occasionally, ‘creative differences’ certainly boiled over into confrontation with a few of the students. I am not (now) proud to say I threatened one or two with instant fail grades when the creative process was frustrated by obstruction of the simulated working environment. I wasn’t alone in losing my temper, although the handful of Arts-based lecturers I shared the train wreck module over the years have less incidents in total than my own; it is clear that they would make better employers than I. However to their credit, all but one of my student opponents eventually agreed that situations arose through ‘prima donna’ attitudes, usually exacerbated by stress over grades, and an unjustified concern that working in a group was going to be detrimental to their degree classification. The one exception resulted in ‘an agreement to disagree’, which taught us both a valuable lesson in avoiding direct conflict. All of the lecturers involved over the years had to engage in “good cop, bad cop” behaviour at times, but we tried later on to engage predominantly in ‘Nonviolent Resistance’; hence the ‘Gandhi’ reference in the title.
The train wreck module was an interesting experiment in nonviolent resistance both to the university power hierarchy and the student cohort, which elicited a number of personal revelations:

  1. Placing responsibility for effective group work squarely on the shoulders of the students themselves (owning the idea that if there is a problem with a member of the team, it is the team’s problem not the individual’s);
  2. Recognising that ‘breaking the silence’ was necessary when problems arose (multidisciplinary culture shock and personality clashes, concern over lack of contribution by doing too little or the control freakery of doing too much, all of which threatened the pipeline of production);
  3. Mediation and moderation (avoiding the ‘automatic obedience’ of being a tutor in what is increasingly a student dominated relationship, as well as team selection based around meritocracy, rather than random or ‘best with worst’ approaches);
  4. Reconciliation rather than retribution (including the occasional ‘sit in’ to facilitate a recognition that the experience of process is far more important than the product).

When I have presented at conference or informally discussed the train wreck module in the past, I have received from academic colleagues (and even students) numerous explanations as to how it couldn’t work in such a such environment, lecturers shouldn’t control who works with whom, the students wouldn’t put up without lecturers actually teaching (i.e. spoon feeding), the faculty couldn’t approve it, inter-departmental collaboration had been tried in the past and failed, and any number of other reason why, like the apocryphal Bumblebee’s inability to fly, it would never work. That, I have always said, is the point. If a games graduate went for interview and said they were an excellent team player and worked well with others, they would hardly be credible. If, on the other hand, they looked the interviewer in the eye and exclaimed wearily that they had first hand experience, and knew at least a few of the ways in which large groups can horribly epically fail, they might be a bit more convincing. Sadly, for me at least, the train has pulled out of the station for the final time.

© 2013 The Computer Games Journal, Candlemas 2013
Reproduction rights owned by The Computer Games Journal