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The debate over the quality of education in Britain is one which has raged for decades, and seems unlikely to end any time soon. For the games business, however, this week saw an interesting new twist in the saga - with the BBC's news broadcasts highlighting the game development sector as the latest industry to face a shortage of skilled workers in Britain.
This is despite the huge rise in the number of courses being offered by universities in the UK which claim to be focused on videogames - the vast majority of which, leading developers say, simply don't produce graduates that are ready to work in the industry.
Now, there's nothing unusual about an industry - especially a highly specialised industry like videogame development - having to provide some training and education to new recruits fresh out of university. That's simply to be expected, and it would be utterly unrealistic for any company, games-related or otherwise, to expect to hire graduates and simply have them start working on projects on day one.
That's not what's happening here, however. Yes, the game development sector could probably do a lot more with regard to on-the-job training and skills development for its staff - in this regard, many parts of the industry still act like the cottage industries they once were, and it's not uncommon for "skills development" to translate as a rather haphazard "learn it as you go along" approach. The industry could do better, and to their credit, many companies are actively trying to do better.
However, the problem here is vastly more severe - and blame doesn't lie with the developers. The harsh truth is that graduates being turned out by many "videogames degrees" simply aren't at the level where games companies can reasonably be expected to take over their training. Lacking in the kind of hard maths and sciences background required by game development, or focusing on the wrong creative tools (or worse, no creative tools at all), graduates from these degrees don't have any useful skills whatsoever to offer to a game development studio.
The universities offering these courses are not only failing the games industry - they are also, far more shamefully, wasting the time, money and effort of their students. The worst of these degrees (and the word "worst" covers a pretty wide range here) are pointless, useless exercises - leaving students no more qualified for any profession than they were when they finished secondary education. Not only are these degrees worthless to game developers, they are also likely to be looked upon very poorly by more traditional employers.
It's not, I should say, all bad. UK creative media industry body Skillset provides accreditation for game-related degrees, and those degrees which are actually accredited by the body generally provide a pretty solid grounding in key game development skills. However, out of over eighty degree courses being offered in the UK, only four have that accreditation.
This is hardly surprising. Anecdotal evidence points to just how bad some videogame degrees at UK universities can be - in some instances rivalling the most reviled and ridiculous degrees in any university's catalogue in their sheer pointlessness and banality. It's no surprise that games companies, exasperated with the universities' poor standards, are now calling for a return to more traditional maths, physics and computer science degrees - although I note that on that front, the country's top science universities say that they may soon have to add an extra year to their degree courses in order to make up for the falling standard of maths and science education at secondary level. The implication is that the essential skills which the games industry needs are in widespread decline, which is a disturbing prospect.
Most of all, however, it's the students who embark upon these games degrees that are being let down the most. Developers and publishers have real, tangible concerns over the standard of education in the sector, and they need to be listened to both by government and by the institutions - but the most tragic stories in this whole mess are those of the students being shafted by their universities.
There is enormous enthusiasm for the videogames industry among young people in the UK, which is what universities are seeking to tap into by offering these courses in the first place - but there's something absolutely soul-destroying about speaking to a bright-eyed, excited young person who is incredibly keen to work on videogames, only to discover that his university has convinced him that the right way to prepare for this career isn't to study maths or science, but to play games and write essays analysing them.
A vast swathe of these courses are failing both the industry and their own students, and urgent action is needed both to secure the supply of talented graduates which the development sector needs, and to prevent more and more young people's enthusiasm for the market from being crushed by sub-standard, badly taught and often utterly inaccurate courses.
What can the industry do? On one level, it can certainly do more to ensure that prospective students are informed about the value (or lack of value) of these courses. Communicating with schools, career guidance counsellors, parents and the students themselves is a major undertaking, but one which the industry and its representative bodies must be prepared to engage with.
Moreover, however, we are rapidly reaching a point where positive affirmation of good degrees won't be sufficient. As well as providing accreditation for the best games degrees, perhaps it's time to start thinking about more drastic measures - such as naming and shaming the worst degrees out there.
This is, of course, the nuclear option. It will sour relationships with some academic institutions, and may result in some universities pulling out of offering games-related courses altogether - but that, in itself, could be the result the industry needs. Better to have fewer games courses than to have a host of rubbish ones - better for the industry, and certainly better for the students presently being hoodwinked by the institutions that are supposed to be equipping them for their future careers.
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