Video games courses: teaching an art form or learning a trade?

UNSW and partners have $1m from the latest CRC Projects round, for AI to “advance cloud gaming,” which is not, as it sounds, wagering on nephology.

Rather, it is about using AI to increase the speed of cloud technology for digital games. “Australian game studios that produce animation, sound, music and cinematography, are a high-growth sector contributing $226.5m to the local economy.”

Which means exports – according to DFAT, 83 per cent of ’21 industry revenue was from overseas.

Presumably this is why last month the Commonwealth created a 30 per cent tax offset for digital games creator. Arts Minister Tony Burke called it “a game changer” for the industry.

Perhaps the game it is intended to change is jobs in the industry. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports employment in digital game development rose from 734 in 2015-16, to 2225 in ‘21-‘22.

Which does not seem many, given there are 119 HE courses across 40 institutions teaching video game development – but Brendan Keogh from QUT suggests tying to courses to employment misses the point, “we do not only teach game development for the game industry’s need.”

The industry model also ignores the presence and possibilities of a broader sense of what games can accomplish and as such goes to the heart of criticism of the present utilitarian focus in HE policy on jobs for graduates and research that creates market-ready products. 

“There will always be more music students than paid musicians, there will always be more creative writing students than paid authors. Videogame development is no different,” Keogh says.

This addresses one of the two conundrums at the core of game development – it’s about creativity as well as coding.

“Creating videogames is, fundamentally, an interdisciplinary process that requires both technical and creative skills. It is the technical, however, that has dominated social imaginings of videogame development,” he and Taylor Hardwick (Swinburne U) argue.

But it’s the courses teaching tech that have most market appeal, “game development programmes in STEM and Game department contexts that prioritise technical skills and industry employment pipelines are likely to attract higher rates of students that already identify as gamers.”

Where the pipelines take them is the other conundrum – courses designed for giant game factories is not where all the Australian opportunities are. For a start, producers can look to computer science grads rather than game designers for the programming talent they need.

And Keogh says the majority of game making in Australia is now done by “small independent teams” not large studios.

“This means that most game development graduates increasingly need to be able to wear a number of hats, jumping between technical, creative, marketing, and management tasks day to day … they increasingly need to learn how to be entrepreneurial creatives: how to network, how to experiment, how to collaborate.”

And they can find futures in what is an often unrecognised artform as much as an industry – a case Keogh makes in his new book in  The Videogame Industry Does Not Exist: Why We Should Think Beyond Commercial Game Production (MIT Press).

“The ability for a wider range of gamemakers to create and distribute a wider range of works now clashes with entrenched and limited commercial expectations and imaginations of what videogames can and should be,” he writes.

Making the HASS case for transferable skills, he says starting students assume they are studying for a qualification that will get them a job but “this is not how creative industries work.”

You do not get a bachelor’s degree in music and then start looking for jobs in a band. You start playing music and then you get better at playing music during your studies and then, one day, if you are lucky, you find a way to make a living from it. Game design should be approached exactly the same.”

Many students, when they first start, think they have simply enrolled in a technical programme where they will learn some skills, get a qualification, and then get a job. You have to start making the games yourself. Small games, trashy games, arty games. Games that develop your skills and your own sense of style.”

There’s a novel that explains it, albeit with ambivalent optimism, Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (2022) – about game developers who are genius-good  and in it for the creative experience – which  just happens to make them stars.

None of which will likely cut much cyber-ice with the officials who recommended CRC funding for the UNSW project, who probably liked what they heard from project leader, Professor Vijay Sivaraman, “Cloud gaming is attracting huge investments from the likes of Nvidia, Microsoft, Sony, and Amazon, and is slated to become a $22.53 billion industry by 2030.”

None of which will necessarily happen here.

Keogh says there are a string of games made locally that are critical and commercial successes but in terms of sales and jobs Australia does not rate against the US – or Canada, notably Montreal, where 10 000 game developers work.

“The Australian industry likes to look at Montreal as something that can be reproduced here with the right tax breaks and incentives,” he says but adds proximity to the US market and the presence of French giant UbiSoft in a French speaking city are advantages that can not be matched.

“In the past, Australia has done well by simply being a cheap place to outsource game development work, but that led to the industry being nearly obliterated during the GFC.”  

Overall, however he is optimistic.

“You can’t rely on just the large international companies, but you also can’t rely on just the small indie startups. You need both if you are going to have a truly sustainable videogame industry. In Australia, we are starting to see that.”  



Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Subscribe to us to always stay in touch with us and get latest news, insights, jobs and events!