Game Development Studies — Sweet Sixteen

Andy Phelps
May 2, 2017 · 17 min read

A Study of the Gawky, Teenage years when Academic Games Programs Must Learn to Drive Instead of Walk

Personal contemplation of I. Bogost — Game Studies, Year 15 —

One of the interesting things I think that has happened is that in addition to the games studies programs/work/field, another set of academic programs and related work were simultaneously emerging, with significant overlap, that faced and/or are facing the same set of issues. And these programs, which I will broadly characterize as ‘game development’ programs, are not excluded from games studies, but rather they seem to incorporate games studies to a greater or lesser degree depending on their focus, i.e. some programs deeply intertwine a narrativist or ludological approach to games studies with the study of game making, and others seek to divorce the study of the societal response and importance of games from the technical and artistic processes of development, for better or worse. (Well, usually worse, but who is counting).

What’s interesting about these more developmentally focused programs, generally, is that they suffer from a different (or perhaps more correctly an additional) schism(s) than the narrative/ludology war and peace described in the Year 15 reflections of Bogost. Game making, because it emerged at the root of the first formalized degrees in the field, suffered from the fact that there was really no thoughtful way to bring it forward in the academy at scale: it emerged tooth and nail from whatever host department or group a campus had that (a) was a good host in that it had some roots in an aspect of game development, be it art, design, technology, media, what-have-you, (b) had enough tenured or otherwise protected faculty and staff that it could assume some element of risk, (c ) had an existing program or curriculum that had space to inject courses or experiences increasingly focused on games specifically, and (d) enjoyed a university culture that, while never nurturing, was willing to look the other way often enough to allow something to evolve. I’ll come back to that last point, but the scene that sticks in my head here is the alien ripping up through the bowels of the crewmember in Aliens, born of pain, destruction, and speed.

And oh, what speed. These programs were born at breakneck pace, for forces and factors outside our control. The first large wave of programs was born in the early aughts, as the infrastructure and capability that universities had expanded into for computer science was threatened with mass destruction in the wake of the dot-com bubble burst. Game development programs, while perhaps well intentioned by their faculty proponents (a generally passionate and game-loving bunch) and generally adored by those early students as finally directly focused on their passions and interests, were nonetheless an enrollment play from the beginning. They were under-resourced (because resourcing properly means re-assigning or re-prioritizing resources), they were under-staffed (because who would we even hire for a field that didn’t exist?), and they were over-exposed. Similarly, arts programs looked at games as a chance for legitimacy on more technology-focused campuses, or a connection to industry and development funding for departments and colleges that historically are supported more through philanthropic and foundational sources (and the dot com crash had damaged many of those endowments and funding streams as well). Which is not to call out their early proponents and creators as misguided or Machiavellian, but rather to contextualize some of the forces at play during this early evolutionary period and the ways in which programs — which by definition are proposed and led by faculty but require administrative buy-in and campus-wide impact with respect to support and operations.

The Early Aughts

There are a collection of programs that have grown out of computer science, art & design, or an amalgamation of the two. These three strands: either a tech host, an art host, or an early attempt at a collaborative bridge structure such as a center or joint program, would define the structure for just about every one of the programs to come, at least in the first few years.

But those roots were formative in the ways that were not intended. In the programs that grew from computer science this was particularly messy, because computer science itself has within it a deep philosophical schism and uncertainty about the ways and means it is a Science. It is an age-old representation of the divide between theory and practice, but is complicated at many institutions around the emergence of CS itself from mathematics: CS thus is, in some circles, overly concerned about what constitutes ‘capital S’ Science vs. application or software development, the latter often cast as a lesser field of ‘mere implementation’ of theory rather than a part of the field proper. Games, in this light, instead of being welcomed as a core addition that could produce new knowledge, was seen as an application of graphics, AI, and interaction, which are themselves applications (although AI has jumped this hurdle depending on the approach taken). A twice-damned two-step from legitimacy, and given that they were used as an enrollment wedge they were further damned from the start with respect to faculty buy-in and support. Games had no hope of standing against the insecurities of an existing field where traditionalism and rigor are tools of war: the public perception of games, both as instigators of violent behavior (Columbine, etc.), and concurrently as wasteful indiscretions and destroyers of social interaction, guaranteed that within the context of a larger field concerned with its place in the pantheon of science and engineering games were an unwanted intrusion, a distraction from useful purpose.

Art is much more complicated: the social and intellectual impact of games as a medium is more obvious, and the culture of an art department is often more willing to embrace media and subjects that are colloquially heretical, but the ability of games to be ‘capital A’ art has certainly been of substantial debate — rising all the way to the Supreme Court with respect to first-amendment protections. Functionally, the time of the initial emergence of games programs coincides with one of the strong points of the console era: games in the public eye, and perhaps from an art education perspective, were less understood as being producible by individual artists or small teams of artists without significant engineering effort. The irony here is palpable given the roots of games themselves, and their original authors. But at that moment in time the ability for an individual art student to use readily and/or freely available tools to create interactive games and media was much more in question than today. Game development found a toe-hold primarily in programs that were developing technical expertise within the context of the arts: new media, animation, and other experimental programs. And interestingly art took a similar kind of schism as their technologically scientific brothers and sisters: the emergence of games programs occurred first in the art and design community at institutions and programs that saw themselves as applied art and design in service to industry, rather than at bastions of art for the sake of art, with a couple of notable exceptions. Applied turtles all the way down.

There is an important note here on the presence of a couple of specific trade-oriented schools that were designed from the ground up to ONLY offer a game development program, with industry funding from Nintendo and others. This was not a model that expanded significantly beyond the early players, but their curriculums and offerings were studied by others in game development programs as potential designs. It also further biased traditional university power structures away from what was already a media form of (then?)-questionable legitimacy.

And then there were the original programs that attempted multi-disciplinary hybrids of these early elements. There are two evolutionary paths here: one were attempts to create a center or structure or strategic set of joint appointments, and the second were attempts to kind of do the same using an underground, guerilla warfare approach without administrative structure. Most of these first order attempts have either failed or are in the process of failing, provided they did not transition as described below — currently several schools are hemorrhaging faculty, staff and doctoral students, and other schools are ramping up and taking advantage.

Of these first-wave programs, a handful have used their roots of whatever origin to create a separate administrative entity: a department, center, school, what-have-you, that encircles the game development program and associated activities, and provides elements such as dedicated faculty, core advising and student services, academic identity, etc. USC stands alone in having a university-wide administrative structure (of perhaps variable success as an effective umbrella) to encompass multiple departments and programs throughout a campus-and-system-wide. These are currently among the most-cited development programs with respect to curricular structure, perhaps simply because they are the most recognizable from outside the field. USC is among (and in some ways the) most highly regarded of them all.

The Second 2/3 Decade

The second wave of programs emerged in late 2009-approximately 2013. These programs had, to some extent, the luxury of a second design iteration – multi-disciplinary work was more (although perhaps not often or completely) valued, if not structurally recognized, and there were clear examples of success and failure to reference when designing curriculum. These programs emerged across a much wider set of universities and colleges, from two-year and four-year schools and a wider array of program types (BS, BFA, BA, etc.)

There is an odd quirk here with the IGDA that inserted itself just after these first programs emerged to publish a ‘curricular framework’ for additional schools, which was an oft-cited document in the design of second-wave programs. This was hugely important work, and influential in a lot of the curricular design processes of the time period. But this was twisted when some members of the IGDA started calling for (or at least strongly suggesting) formal accreditation of games programs (in my opinion far too early in the evolution of any field) to (and I’m paraphrasing here) ‘protect students from predatory programs’ which created significant backlash from the established programs and damaged the effort of curricular sharing at large.

Nonetheless, other avenues of sharing best practice and facilitating program emergence and growth emerged: Foundations of Digital Games began in the early aughts with support from Microsoft Research, and carried this banner for the more technologically focused programs (first as a sort of applied CS model with the luggage noted above, then later as a more ‘games education research’ conference and most recently as a multi-facted home for several kinds of game-based research and scholarship). SIGGRAPH flirted with engagement off and on, the work at Wisconsin brought games and education into focus through Games+Learning+Society (GLS), and was instrumental in establishing a community of collaboration and practice around this area. Conferences proliferated, and concurrently festivals and arcades began to provide outlets for academic, independent, and experimental work of several kinds.

Perhaps the fundamental shift that occurred here was that while programs in the first wave originally concentrated significantly on student preparation to enter the field as developers, fighting to interject the necessary elements relative to their birthplace, programs in the second wave looked more broadly about incorporating additional elements in a broadly integrative way: education, humanities, health-care, and science hybrids emerged, including, ironically, some with the home disciplines that gave rise to first wave programs. The combination of development enmeshed with a participating discipline or disciplines in a single program became a normalizing factor — it allowed the enrollment potentials of a formal games program to integrate with other areas, and allowed for a curricular cohesion that first-wave programs often had to struggle to find.

It should go almost without saying that the second wave of programs emerged on the heels of the Great Recession, when ‘go back to school’ or ‘stay in school’ was often an answer to economic uncertainty, and there were loan incentives and other programs to encourage this. From a pessimistic point of view, the explosion of game development programs at this juncture was essentially a response-on-steroids of the dot-com equation. Where the dot-com crash may have damaged funding and endowments, the recession gutted them — programs in the arts latched on to games and interactive media: any holdouts on the debate of traditional media vs. digital form and similar concerns were largely ignored in places where survival became paramount. Programs that were more technically focused raised the STEM banner (and later the STE(A)M banner) as a way of saying ‘this will provide stability and future prospects in a world with neither’.

But more optimistically, it fit two trends: one was the explosion of mobile technology in the intervening years — the market and potential for digital media had expanded as the number and quality of smartphones and tablets completely redefined the world from 2001–2011 both economically, culturally, and interactively. The second trend is the proliferation of technologies and platforms that made it easier for individuals and small groups to create meaningful content — the rise of indie culture, and associated entrepreneurship and a strong call to broaden the type, format, and content of games in every direction. Given the post-recession culture there was increasing emphasis on individual creative careers, and to some extent the second wave programs (and re-design of first wave programs) can be seen to embrace this trend with passion.

The Current Predicament | Thoughts for the Future

Moving forward, there are continued and systemic questions of institutional and academic legitimacy that remain unanswered. On the one hand — the programs that exist aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and there is ample room for additional programs, particularly in the state university systems that have been slowest to adopt degrees outside of core disciplines. However, the focus and dependence on enrollment places games programs in a predicament: their function -as related to enrollment from their earliest roots- places their value as an economic proposition even on campuses and environments that are typically driven (partly or wholly) via other mechanisms. And on tuition driven campuses they are at the mercy of the market: there will come a point when the public fancy of being a game designer is not the siren call of the 70’s rock star that it is today. Programs that have failed to create other value propositions through related collaboration, research, artistic and cultural contributions will be first on the block should enrollments dip. As enrollments rise and fall, a department of mathematics or business administration is typically given time and grace to rightsize: but this is a function of legitimacy in the eyes of both institutional will and senior administration. I hold no illusions that such care and grace will be provided to game development programs if they are held in future regard similar to their current reputation. Which is all to say that the princess of legitimacy is in another castle entirely distinct from the enrollment tower.

Indeed, there is every reason to believe history will repeat itself with the recent phenomenon of eSports: as the professional gaming phenomenon continues to gain steam, the interest and excitement within the academy is becoming palpable. Universities are moving at breakneck speed to provide programs, activities, and outlets for student engagement in pursuit of additional development dollars, creating strife and collision courses between academic affairs, student affairs, athletics, development, alumni relations, etc. If the speed at which we rolled out development programs teaches us anything, it is that bridge building takes time, and early collaborations between a few key stakeholders do not, in fact, equate to institutional acceptance. And yet, eSports holds the potential to engage the public more completely than ever before, to continue to lift games and interactive content in the public eye, and through that engagement to reach audiences for education that have hitherto eluded most of the development programs to date.

The potential, hype, and theoretical impact of the VR/AR/MR explosion is of similar interest. These technologies span so many fields from core engineering, optics, vision, perception and behavior, that, in concert with their applications in games, entertainment, film, and media, they are likely to finally act as a sort of institutional glue that could better stitch together a more holistic engagement between games development and the larger university ecosystem, particularly where these meld into “serious games” approaches in verticals like healthcare, education, scientific visualization, corporate training, etc. But even here there is a tug-of-war, between acceptance of “serious games” as a legitimate offshoot of their “less-serious” roots, and acknowledgement of entertainment-based games in their own right. (The terminology here could not be more descriptive.)

These larger question of legitimacy can be seen most clearly in the continued evolution and angst around faculty research and scholarship associated with work in game development programs. In most programs, faculty are specifically (still) asked to produce work in the form, format, and comparative contribution to their home discipline, not in the discipline of game development itself. Programs emerging from Computer Science expect core contributions to CS, programs emerging from Art expect similar work in the field of art and design. There are a few programs and aforementioned ‘game departments’ that can recognize contributions to the field of game development itself, and depending on the university sometimes across most or all of Boyer’s classifications.

But most often faculty are still asked to make core contributions to an existing field first and foremost, with game development contributions reserved either as a ‘playspace of the tenured’ (an incredible description from I. Horswill of Northwestern) or a risky proposition that can place junior candidates in peril with traditional review committees and policy metrics (as cited in just about every piece of policy on multi-disciplinary scholarship in the last decade). Ironically, perhaps, the least recognized activity within the walls of the academy is actually making games: there can be no finer critique of the academic enterprise than a program exploring the development of a given medium in which those entrusted to guide the education of students in that process are discouraged from participation in the activity itself in favor of critique and contribution to related, but ultimately not identical fields and practices. Art-housed programs are sometimes, but not always, better equipped than other homes in this respect, given a traditional focus on the faculty member as practicing artist, and the role of published artifact and critique in this culture.

All of which leads to a profound need at this juncture for sustained organizational efforts for better information sharing of academic practice at every level: administrative information sharing a-la birds of a feather events for chairs, deans, and other administrators. Venues and journals for faculty to share best practices and strategies beyond individual research but more in terms of program identity, goals and cultures. Transparent and established norms for students, faculty, staff, and the public at large to understand these programs, their impact, their focus and strengths overall and relative to one another. And these mechanisms need to exist in ways that are not prescriptive, but descriptive — the sideways and hamfisted attempts at accreditation do not serve the field, they serve a select subset of departments that want to side-step the work needed for legitimacy by appealing to a coalition of the frightened. Rather, we need to band together not under an external shield, but together as colleagues, and honestly and rigorously ask ourselves where we came from, where we are, and where we are going. Currently, we have instead a divided and disjoint professional community that uses various other professional organizations depending on the related academic field that is topical, relevant or recognized at the home institution (or some weighted combination thereof).

It’s Always (in Part) About Money

The other side of all of that, however, is financial freedom, or at the very least augmentation, from the enrollment roots of the game development program. That is easier or harder at various universities depending on endowment, research, tuition rates, subsidies, loans, and similar issues. To a certain extent, legitimacy is defined in academic terms based on knowledge contribution, societal contribution, perceived rigor and similar factors. But it is also a function of ability to fund students, grants, activities, facilities, etc.: Without significant ability relative to costs any notion of academic independence is functionally threatened, notions of academic purity and the role of the university notwithstanding.

Wave 3 of game development programs will emerge soon, if not already. These programs will be informed by the rise of distance / MOOC / individualized learning models, the continued destabilization of the traditional campus, and the continued evolution of the concept of the ‘creative career’ in the modern world. Technology in these programs will increasingly bleed across ‘traditional’ lines — game engines will be used for everything from architecture to film production, VR could effect a plethora of fields, mobile and tablet technologies will continue to have incredible impact. Game development programs will increasingly focus on entrepreneurship and team-based approaches to work, because anything else will fail to prepare students for success in the post-industrial economy (most programs currently incorporate some team-based aspects, but future work will engage teams of more disparate backgrounds and specialities). They will continue to engage with ever more disciplines that are farther and farther afield, but will simultaneously have to figure out how to fend of challenges of identity with other multi-disciplinary efforts involving digital media: the question of what constitutes ‘games’ in the academy will become more acute if there is contention over resources, enrollment, and a non-expanding physical plant, which seems likely.

Further, the issue of diversification of program support will become an ever-present issue. Currently, game development programs have a love/hate relationship with the industry: industry seems more than happy to hire students from game development programs, but it is a buyer’s market and they have no reason to systematically support any academic program or institution, or professional organizations or sustained academic engagement beyond an HR/recruiting function — they can run down the block and find another. There also exists in industry a particular anti-establishment streak, and this plays into a somewhat-beyond-healthy skepticism of games programs in general, and particularly so from senior management that either attended a traditional program or did not attend college at all. The development and corporate relations outlook for large-scale industry support is grim, despite localized successes at a few campuses. The riches there will aggregate to a few well-recognized programs in areas of strategic importance. A more effective strategy may be contributions from related areas of strategic import where game development is already having effect — the second wave program model that prioritizes elements like healthcare, education, etc.

There is likely to be a short-term ‘pulling back’ of support for games and interactive relative to STEM and STEAM engagement from federal sources, as conservative interpretation of budget priorities and constrained overall spending and support limit both the funds available and the flexibility of those funds to support higher risk activities. The continued public-relations problems around the importance of games and media, which had improved in the Obama era, further exacerbate these issues.

More hopeful will be the effect that having a dedicated alumni base has as these programs age. The first-wave programs are just now likely to have alumni that even have significant managerial control and earning potential, aside from a few out-of-scale successes. As these programs age, and the generalized ability of their alumni to contribute significantly to their alma maters increases, but to what effect is as yet unknown. This is perhaps another interesting opportunity for eSports to engage alumni in the field, but doing so will require the ability to do so at a distance, through either traditional or non-traditional broadcast media, in ways that can be effectively monetized (which unless trends are disrupted would seem to be a continuation of the dominance of traditional mainstays of NCAA and athletics activities).

Finally, there are several elements of support that have emerged that support entrepreneurship or economic development generally, and/or various social and community funds and programs, and game development has a fertile ground here as a growing industry, as well as a lucrative feeder to other elements of the high-tech community, as well as utility as a mechanism for societal good and social education. The issue here will be expanding the scope and scale of such funding beyond an initial short-term window (in which games are high-risk and likely to be of limited return on investment relative to other sectors), and instead educating funders, programs, and foundations that success in games is never guaranteed at the outset but a combination of design, technology, popular culture, marketing, and most importantly iterative design towards an ultimate goal.

The next generation program needs to embrace a chaotic, diversified landscape that will force the issue of legitimacy from the roots of the field. The overall field of higher education is likely to contract, and already administrations are hedging bets, ‘creating flexibility’ through temporary and non-tenure-track resourcing, multi-use facilities that can be re-prioritized, and exploratory use of distance models that maximize use of current personnel relative to potential audience (with as yet large questions on monetization and future). In this landscape, the game development program can shine as an example of a flexible, multi-disciplinary, individualistic and creative approach that spans both STEM disciplines and the arts, but only if it can find its own place to weather the storm.

-A Phelps, Spring 2017

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