Any discussion about the crossover between academia and the videogames business is unlikely to be a happy one. For decades publishers thrived by creating the greatest procrastination aids in human history - games which could, for a mere investment of a few tenners, ensure a precipitous drop in your exam marks and an ever-lengthening tardiness on your essay deadlines. The ubiquitous console found in every student flat across the land is the arch-enemy of the faculty, the siren call of World of Warcraft or Modern Warfare 2 the solemn death-toll of hopes for a 2:1.
More recently the boot has been on the other foot, as the games industry has found plenty of cause to moan about academia. Nearly 100 university courses have been launched in fields such as "game design" or "game technology" over the past decade. Of these about a dozen are actually worthwhile, with the remainder turning out graduates who simply aren't fit to work in the games business.
Faced with immense difficulty in recruiting appropriate staff (not to mention the obvious human tragedy of people working for three or four years on a degree only to discover that they're unemployable at the end), the industry's pronouncements on these courses has become increasingly hardline.
Yet there's more to the relationship between games and academia than fuelling procrastination and providing underwhelming specialist courses. The games business, after all, is one of the largest and most high-profile employers of graduates from respected courses such as physics and computer science, to say nothing of the huge numbers of graduates in creative fields such as art and audio, or from business courses, who end up working in the field.
That's one of the catalysts for things like the GaME (Games and Media Event, a rather fine backronym) events, annual one-day conferences hosted by Imperial College London with a selection of speakers drawn from across both industry and academia.
Glancing down the schedule for this year's event reveals industry talks on everything from AI and storytelling through to optimising graphics in mobile games. Between them are sandwiched presentations from academic researchers who have done things as disparate as figuring out how to make a detailed 3D model of an area simply by looking at a video of a webcam moving through it, building a version of Pac-Man which dynamically adapts to the player's style and personality to make the experience more fun, or applying the principles of videogame progression to create a compelling way of training stroke patients to use their limbs again.
Eyeing the crowd as I collect my badge, I note that the majority of those at the conference are Imperial College students, but there are other interesting groups here too. There are researchers and faculty members, for instance. Peppered among them are recruitment officers from various game developers and publishers, keen to talk to any Imperial student who's been willing to give up a sunny summer day to listen to talks on AI techniques and dynamic difficulty.
As the morning wears on, a stark contrast begins to emerge between the two groups of speakers. The game developers are at pains to point out that their jobs involve little in the way of high-end research or implementation of complex, graceful systems. An AI programmer from Creative Assembly bluntly observes that from an academic perspective, the AI he writes for games is downright disappointing in its simplicity; listing some of the academic AI solutions which he'd love to be writing instead, he half-jokes that he's not even sure what they actually mean.
The message is simple - developers are constrained by the need to make things work on cheap, mass-produced, £150 boxes that sit under televisions, to do so in remarkably little time and on fairly shoestring budgets, and then to wake up the next day and start it all over again. The breathing space required to research new concepts and create elegant solutions for problems simply isn't there; no developer will pay its staff to sit around thinking about next-gen AI when the current-gen AI could still be tweaked to within an inch of its life.
From the academic presentations, a whole different world emerges. The speakers talk in terms of long-term research projects spanning years, if not decades, of intellectual investigations. These investigations are undertaken to find solutions to tough problems for the simple reason that the problems are tough, and thus interesting. Their research isn't necessarily entirely about games, but it would take a dull imagination indeed not to see the potential of advanced robotic vision, or software that adapts itself to the user's psychology, in future videogames.
It's fairly obvious that these two sides of the coin complement each other pretty well - the commercial business with little time for research, and the research institutions whose work may well carry the seeds of the technology and techniques that power the games of the future. Yet here is a side of the relationship between games and academia about which we hear little. For all the interesting research it's doing, Imperial is hardly a name that springs to mind when you think of videogames.
That's probably because like most of the country's top universities, Imperial doesn't offer any degrees focused on games. Instead, it has added games-related content to its existing, more traditional courses, and has sought to work with games companies to drive forward research and engagement.
At lunchtime, I sit down with Professor Paul Kelly and Doctor Simon Colton, two of the men spearheading the university's involvement with games.
"We have extremely strong research and education in areas which are massively applicable to games," explains Colton, "But we don't necessarily use games as our basis."
"Simon, on some days, might admit to doing research into games, but actually the heart of what he does is an intellectual investigation into what it means for a computer to be creative," says Kelly.
"Meanwhile we have, for example, a large visual image procesing group, some of whose projects are in some sense very game-like - things like surgery training tools. They wouldn't describe themselves as game researchers, but some of the things they do have absolutely direct transferability into the game world - in content generation, for example, or haptics."
Some of that may sound less than practical, but that should be expected, Kelly tells me. He defend's academia's reputation for sitting in an Ivory Tower well above the more mundane concerns of the commercial world. "You can take the perspective that because of [budget and hardware constraints], academic AI, for example, is no good to games. On the other hand, you can think of that relationship as being exactly as it should be.
"There are academics which are developing things which are not directly applicable, and there are people trying to solve things today, in a robust way, with limited resources - and they're navigating choices which have been mapped out by the academics."
It's the challenges of AI, in fact, which were among of the catalysts for Imperial to reach out to the games business. "There are real, tricky problems to be solved in the games industry which require techniques that AI isn't delivering yet. If we can deliver specifically for games, then hopefully those techniques can be used for every other domain," says Colton.
With that objective, he set up a network three years ago which would bring together researchers with the field. With around 250 members, two thirds of them academics and the remainder from the professional field, the Industry - Academia AI and Games Research Network (should have involved the chaps who came up with that snappy GaME backronym, really) has achieved some success in spanning the divide.
One of the primary successes has been to put Imperial in touch with games companies who are interested in working with academics to push AI research in useful directions. Three British firms, including Rebellion and indie legends Introversion, are co-operating with Imperial on funded research projects.
There was, however, a further, rather more mundane reason for Imperial to become interested in games. "We want to do things which demonstrate our own interest in things which lots of our students are interested in," admits Kelly. "For lots of grey-haired academics, games are a completely foreign world - we wanted to build some bridges there."
Working with games companies has been an "interesting rollercoaster", says Kelly. "Our early engagement showed that things were not right, that the games industry didn't have much of an idea of how they might engage with academics."
Part of that problem is straightforward. Focused on the next milestone, the next deadline or the next launch window, games companies rarely spend much time thinking about problems to which they don't know the solution - yet those are exactly the problems which get academics out of bed in the morning.
"One type of enquiry we get is where a question is already solved, and you can just point them to some research, or consult for them, or send over some software," explains Colton. "That's not really what we're interested in - we want problems that don't have obvious solutions, something where we fundamentally don't know the answer so we have to do lots of experimentation, lots of old-style research."
"Whenever I give talks to games people," he continues, "They say things like, 'But that's really difficult, I can't imagine a solution to that.' I say, 'Yes! Exactly! That's why it's research! That's exactly what we're here for.' Most problems within games companies can be solved with enough manpower - we want to talk about fundamental problems, when we don't even know how to phrase the question properly yet, let alone what the answer might be. If games companies can think about things in that way and then come to us, the potential is immense."
Imperial is confident that the research it's undertaking now with games companies such as Rebellion - and which it hopes to undertake in future with other firms ("We could see a bit more of the bigger players," Kelly muses, observing that their contact thus far has largely been with small- to medium-sized British developers) will help to shape the future of video games. Work such as that undertaken by PhD student Robin Baumgarten, who created the dynamically adapting Pac-Man game mentioned earlier, has obvious, near-term practical applications.
"You buy the game and someone else buys the game, and within a week, you're playing two different games because it's adapted to your playing style," says Colton. "But developers don't know how best to do that, so it's a great research project."
Yet for all that, the university's researchers seem unanimous on one point, perhaps surprisingly. While they'd love to engage more with the games business, the industry also needs to look to itself and start recognising the value of fundamental research - rather than constantly fixing its eyes on the next deadline.
"They absolutely have to develop a culture of research and development, like other big industries do - like the pharmaceutical industry does, or the telecoms industry does," says Colton. We discuss the Google model, where the company gives its employees 20 per cent of their time to work on their own projects. This approach has created major products for Google, including the near-ubiquitous Gmail.
"That would be amazing," Colton says. "They need to see past the next game - it's damaging, how much everything is focused on that next launch."
But he admits that sadly, that's a pipe-dream for most of today's financially constrained developers. It could well be that the future of gaming is not being brewed up in a gleaming development office somewhere on a sterile industrial park in California. Instead, it could be coming to life in a bedsit flat, the work of a PhD student who is busily doing research that the games industry can't afford, can't spare the time for and perhaps doesn't even know that it needs.