Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Game Industry Wants "Educated People"

Before you react, let me hasten to say that "educated" refers to an attitude, not to earned degrees. Fortunately for us, the game industry does not yet have the "degree-itis" that is invading all walks of American life, as though the only way you can learn something is to get a degree in it. The industry is a "meritocracy", where you are valued and hired for what you can do and what you can create. "Educated people" doesn't necessarily imply academic degrees, it implies a certain attitude toward life. It's that attitude that the game companies want and need to succeed. So I am not talking about the classic idea of the "well-educated" person, which relates to particular things like knowledge of the classics.

Nonetheless, if you read good advice about breaking into the game industry, that advice will include "read as much as you can" and "educate yourself as much as possible", even as the advisors suggest that a bachelor's degree is a good idea. For example, everyone interested in "breaking in" should read the wealth of advice on Tom Sloper's Web site ( and his monthly IGDA column. I used to use a book by Ernest Adams, Break into the Game Industry (, now a bit long in the tooth (2003) but still available from Amazon. His advice is well worth reading (especially about getting a job and how to keep a job), and amounts to the same as Tom's.

No, an "educated person" is a person with a certain attitude toward life, not necessarily one who has a degree. There are people with legitimate Ph.D.s who could be called uneducated (though this is very unlikely). There are certainly many people with bachelors degrees who are essentially uneducated. And there are 17 and 18 and 19 year-olds who clearly are educated people, though they haven't had the time to accumulate a wealth of experience and knowledge that is associated with being educated.

So what makes someone "educated"? An educated person wants to KNOW, and will make an effort to find out things. An uneducated person will tend not to bother. Here's a simple example. An educated person, confronted with a word he doesn't know, is likely to look it up. He wants to improve his understanding (of language, of the world). An uneducated person isn't going to bother.

Further, an educated person teaches himself or herself when necessary, from books or otherwise, rather than wait for a class. The uneducated ones will frequently whine "I haven't been sent to training for that".

Not surprisingly, educated people read a lot, and uneducated ones don't.

This year at my school we had a speaker who helped epitomize this attitude. Bruce Shankle worked at Red Storm at the time (now, Microsoft). He had no degree, but had six years of schooling. He'd taught himself a great deal to help himself as a programmer, and said (IIRC) that 20% of his work time was spent learning new things, and he also frequently studied at home. He paid his way to GDC even in years when he wasn't working in the game industry, because he wanted to know about the industry. This is clearly an educated man in the sense the industry wants, though he has no degree.

I am another example. As some readers know, I worked for many years in computer support at Womack Medical Center on Ft. Bragg, and before that as a dBase programmer. For much of that time I was chief of PCs and networking, supporting up to 900 PCs--and I was the first Webmaster there as well. Almost everything I knew that got me that job and helped me do that job I taught myself, because a Ph.D. in History doesn't help with computing, nor does any degree you got in 1981! I have never actually taken a "real college class" in computing, though I've taken many training classes through the years at Womack. Similarly, everything I've learned about games and game design I taught myself, of course. I read a lot, I experimented a lot, I made a lot of mistakes, too. It does not hurt to have a Ph.D., for sure, but that's not what moved me forward.

Good classes help you learn much quicker, as you take advantage of the experience of teachers and authors. I'd have had an easier time if I'd had classes to take, but such classes rarely existed in the early 80s. Bruce Shankle benefited from many classes, though he had no degree.

Now how does this contrast with typical K12 "education"? There are many exceptions, but generally students in K12 are trained, not educated. The teachers' success, their very job, depends on the students' performance on end-of-class tests in many cases. So the teachers, naturally, try to get students to memorize all the material that is on those wretched tests. The students are trained to parrot material, not to think.

Even good students learn that they can get by just fine by doing exactly what they're assigned and no more. They'll ask what the minimum is, and that's all they'll do. Worse, they think if they do the minimum they should get an "A", though no one in the real world wants an employee who thinks that way.

The habit of students to ask for a test "review"--which usually means, they want to be told exactly what will be on the test--is a consequence. In K12 they're told exactly what's on the test, then they regurgitate it on the test, and fools call this "education". I call it memorization, the same kind of thing that blights computer certification. This year I have told students there will be no review, because it's up to them to decide what's important. That's the way the real world is--there's no review from the great Cosmic All, just as we can say that life is an essay test, not a multiple choice test. Of course, many of the smarter students pay attention to what I say in class each day (a few even write it down), and figure that's what I think is important. How sensible, and yet rare!

This year I assigned students the "task"--though it's a habit they should get into on their own--of maintaining a notebook or other "data store" in which they record game-related ideas as they get them. The "uneducated" attitude surfaced soon after: "how much do I have to include in this?" The student wanted to know the minimum, rather than take the educated attitude that this was something he should do anyway, that was worth doing, and he should put some time into it. (That student has since dropped out, unsurprisingly.)

We show videos of guest speakers, such as Bruce Shankle. Students often don't pay attention, or half pay attention, fooling themselves into thinking they can remember a lot while doing something else, when in fact memories seem to be really poor nowadays. Once again, instead of making the most of listening to an expert talk about what happens in the real world, they try to "just get by". An "old man" (me) probably listens better the fourth time he hears one of these lectures, than many of the students do the first time.

Similarly, I see the uneducated attitude toward this blog. It doesn't appear to immediately affect the student, it's not obviously part of a specific task, so many tend to ignore it, even though I ask questions on tests to see if the students actually read it. The same happens when I ask the students to read a web site. Worst of all, though perhaps more understandable, most students don't bother to read the textbook, though there's a wealth of good advice in it despite its flaws.

Educated people like to use their brains in top gear; uneducated people prefer to run in "idle". The old-fashioned "thirst for knowledge" is what I'm talking about, in a sense; something I still see in older students, but rarely in younger ones.

After I talked about this in a class, one student observed that his generation has been told that the only way to learn is to take a class. I've taught graduate school for 20 years at night, and something like 17,000 classroom hours in my life, and I KNOW that people can get through classes and get degrees and still not know a whole lot about what's important in the topics they've studied.

What's important is what you know and what you can do, not what classes you took or what degrees you have. Unfortunately, this attitude is being squeezed out of American life . Thank heaven the game industry still sees it this way.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the sentiments posted in this entry. However, I have to ask: Wouldn't it have been simpler to just say "inquisitive person" rather than using "educated person" and then having to redefine what it means to be educated? (Or were you doing this to stress the fact that what we now call education isn't really and/or grab attention with a title designed to incite?)

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Inquisitive is a good trait, but does not convey the aspect of self-education that I think is so important. You can be inquisitive without having the impulse to teach yourself a lot. We have to get away from the foolish idea that you can only learn something substantial in formal classes. (And then we "dumb down" classes by doing distance education, DUH!)

E. Bruce Shankle III said...

Nice write-up. I really enjoyed speaking at Wake Tech and I hope that's making an impact.

As I've transitioned to my job on the DirectX team at Microsoft I find myself spending a significant amount of time continuing to study and learn. It is almost a part of life now and I quite enjoy it. Why just tonight I was reading about 3DTextures in D3D10 because I have to modify a test routine for that portion of the API.

I've learned 3 valuable traits since I've started at Microsoft:
1. Passion
2. Persistence
3. Attention to Detail

If you have these 1 of these traits you'll do well, if you have 2, you'll do even better, if you possess all 3, world's of possibility await you.

-Bruce Shankle

Anonymous said...

Real nice ! Many thanks !

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