As someone who has been in one undergraduate and two masters programs focusing on game development, I have had the opportunity to observe diverse curricula. These observations have brought to light challenges that face games education, especially in the areas of research standards and grading procedures while accommodating a fail-fast methodology.
To be clear, this is not a talk about educational games or games for use in classrooms or as educational tools.
Games education is faced with the difficult (if not impossible) task of standardizing innovation. Moreover they are asking students to create “new” experiences before they have fully grasped what the current standards are. This is not necessarily negative; without a firm grasp on current game design/development, innovation can become a byproduct of ignorance as lateral thinking becomes a natural approach to design problems that arise. The real problem exists when you attempt to put a time constraint and a grade on such efforts.
It has been argued that grades represent payment and deadlines exist out in the real game dev world, but stagnation also exists out there. Academia should take advantage of the freedom from those restraints instead of pushing to “prepare” students to work in real world environments. The studios that break from the pack of sameness that pervades the industry are those that create outside of these constraints. That Game Company went far beyond their deadline and budget when making Journey, and there’s the classic example of Blizzard’s “it will be released when it’s ready”, beyond that there are so many indie developers with tight budgets but also the passion and bravery to prioritize the game. This is where the academic model of “real game development” falters critically.
When a school project goes beyond a deadline it is simply cut off. You could argue that if the student was passionate enough, they could continue the project outside of class. However, if the grade is supposed to represent payment, then it would make far more sense to say they don’t get a grade until they say it’s finished, whether that be a month or a year later. Current academic models are not nearly flexible enough to allow this, but they need to be. I would further argue that long term incentives would include class prerequisites. You could take as long as you like on a project, but you won’t get to take the next class in the series until you’ve submitted the assignment. By doing so you’d create a system based on an academic “risk tolerance” similar to the financial “risk tolerance” that often accompanies small teams in the industry.
Risk tolerance being the amount of time that you can operate without a stream of revenue. Because students are paying for their time, their academic risk tolerance would be the amount of time they can spend in school before they are given a grade (which is effectively a small portion of their degree). If a student wanted to complete the program in a short period of time, they would have a low risk tolerance and need to make games quickly. This may result in lower grades (to keep with the analogy, less money). Whereas students who were in a situation where they could spend more time on each project would be able to take the time to make the games they want.
Alternatively, if you realize that a project is not going to turn out well you would cancel it in the real world. In academia it is often better to just finish what you have and take the B- then restart part of the way through the term. This is perhaps the largest missed opportunity academic settings have to adapt their structures.
To take the analogy further- grades could even accumulate (like money) instead of averaging — scholarships could be treated like contracts where more specific deadlines are negotiated. Perhaps your grade decays over time (representing cost of operating) and/or projects require a buy-in. Other assignments and learning opportunities would be treated as odd-jobs or moonlighting or part-time or freelance work.
The ETC has perhaps struck the best balance between these, by allowing students to shape both their own measures of success which they will be graded on, and to a lesser degree the measurements for the success of their team project. Though they are not without flaw.
With the overwhelming number of game programs coming into academic maturity, I look forward to seeing new and innovative ways that university settings adapt to foster game development.