Too busy to play games

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Computer-gaming addicts now have a specialist course and career path. Patrick Hayes reports.

A college in Chester has found the answer to a question that has puzzled both parents and teachers for more than 20 years: how can you stop students playing endless computer games and get them to focus on their studies?

The solution could be to prescribe a two-year course in interactive games design. "It's true," says Peter Dodd, a first-year student on the Btec course. "Since we started the course, I don't play anywhere near as many computer games. I pay more attention to life in the real world instead."

The Btec course, at West Cheshire college, is the first of its kind for 16 to 18-year-olds in the UK. Deputy principal Penny Horsefield came up with the idea while watching her children immersed in computer games.

She then headhunted Kevin Oxland, a British designer with 20 years'

experience of working in the industry. Both Oxland and Horsefield agreed the time was ripe for the development of a course to provide a more structured path for young people wanting a career in games design.

In America, the games industry generated more revenue than Hollywood for the first time last year and now movie directors such as John Woo, Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott have been persuaded to lend their skills to game design.

"People tend to just fall into jobs in the industry," says Oxland. "They become very specialised in their roles without understanding the industry as a whole or really grasping the nature of gameplay."

Course tutor Paul Walker adds: "What is really lacking in the games industry is good ideas and content. The course has been structured so that the first year focuses on the development of concepts and ideas."

Lessons in the first year are theory-based and include philosophical investigations into the nature of play, developing business acumen and explorations into the psychology of the games player.

In the second year students begin to focus on practical design and programming, and work in groups to create a game. Paul Walker believes there is tremendous scope for the development of Btec games courses across the country.

"It has taken a while for education to see that the games industry really engages kids unlike anything else," he says.

Since the course began last September, no one has dropped out, and students' attendance is excellent. A second room of computers has been purchased to deal with next year's demand.

Many of the students had dreamed of working in the games industry but were simply advised that the best path was to undertake courses in media studies or IT. The announcement of the course generated huge enthusiasm among students. Mark Smith says: "I thought, I must get on it."

The students are overflowing with ideas for the next generation of games-players whom they believe will want faster and more realistic puzzle-based games.

Their schemes range from creating "wild dreamscapes" to incorporating ethical dimensions into games. Arrangements are also being made to develop games for the hard-of-hearing. Paul Walker believes that you must first learn to analyse and understand the world before you can recreate it in a computer game.

Peter Dodd says: "Because of this course, even when I'm waiting for a bus, I'm analysing the route and seeing how it could be improved."

Fellow student Michael Brown was recently promoted in his part-time job for applying his analytic skills to their cleaning schedule, which he accredits to the course.

Paul Walker grins at these comments: "This year they see how the world could be better structured in computer games. Next year they have to create this better world."

The challenge is eagerly anticipated. The students recently visited E3 in Los Angeles, the industry's largest games exhibition. They set about making industry contacts to the backdrop of gigantic 50ft screens. They envisage the games they will be programming in 20 years time will involve gamers plugging their brains into a computer and using only their mind.

There will be no brain implants for these students, though. As Michael Simkins says: "Since we started this course, there is simply not enough time in the day to play games."

Michael Brown adds: "However, it is fascinating watching the way other people play. You can learn a lot from that."

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