The UK game industry is facing a crisis, according to a number of its most prominent developers. But the blame isn't being assigned just to a slumping economy, government regulation, or a lack of tax incentives to entice local development. During a policy forum at Westminster this morning, there was an abundance of concern about declining educational standards.
David Braben of Lost Winds developer Frontier Games painted a particularly bleak picture for the future. Game development, Braben said, "is going to be gone from the UK unless something is done." Universities have been forced to "dumb down" courses in an effort to get more students through the door, he said.
This complaint was echoed at the forum by Ian Livingstone, Eidos life president, who railed against the way funding was "paid out in a bums-on-seats basis" and also suggested that outcry in the mainstream media should not be about the content of games but about "the lack of skills" being developed to make more of them.
Braben attacked universities offering courses purporting to help students get into the industry but actually having no practical use. The developer described such classes as "media studies courses masquerading as computer studies."
Braben accepted that courses on the cultural implication of games had their place, as they do for film and other media, but added that they are no replacement for training in maths, engineering, and the sciences. This complaint was again echoed by Eidos' Livingstone, suggesting that courses that claim to be about development should focus on the skills needed to make games, rather than the "philosophy" surrounding development.
Dr Richard Wilson, CEO of UK development industry body Tiga, also held forth on the problems with UK educational funding. He said tuition fees on the whole would have to rise to deliver the funding universities needed to deliver quality courses, though he also suggested that courses in the sciences and mathematics have their fees subsidised by the government to increase the number of graduates in those subjects.
The number of applicants for computer science courses has dropped by 50 percent since its peak in 2001, according to figures produced by Braben. One explanation that he offered was that the drop-off coincides with the mass introduction of ICT (information and communication technology) classes in secondary schools. Braben said his discussions with students and his work with schools have shown him that such courses at the secondary level are "dull as ditchwater," focusing on the use of applications and "how to find the power switch on your machine." Such an introduction to computer science simply serves to put the able off the subject, Braben said.
Ed Vaizey, the shadow minister for culture and the creative industries, acknowledged the problems. He said that were the Conservative party to win power, it would engage "at every single level across the country" to address these skill shortages which affect not only the games industry but the future of the British economy as a whole.