Diversifying education:

How the industry can attract and train a broader range of talent

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We speak to educators about the efforts they are making to raise awareness of the pathways to a career in video games.

Encouraging diversity is imperative for the long-term development of the games industry. Playing computer games is widespread, attracting people of all ages, genders and ethnic groups and this will reflect on the future types and concepts of game development.

Historically, the games industry has been a predominantly male preserve, but there are definite signs of change appearing.

Nick Rodriguez, course leader for game development and design at London’s Ravensbourne University says: “I was a games designer back in the Nineties, at a time when the gender mix was mainly male. As people in the industry have got older, we are seeing that mix become more diverse.”

Companies that do not attract a diverse range of entrants to their workforce will be adversely affected, as Alan Thorn – head of games at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) – points out: “Greater diversity can act as a mirror for the industry, allowing us to improve what we do. It can increase the diversity of our games creativity, increase the representation of history and culture in those games, and it can tell us new stories from unique points of view. It makes games a stronger vehicle for building understanding, tolerance and respect.” 

Recognising this, universities and colleges are actively seeking ways of widening the range of students studying all forms of game development. The biggest problem is ensuring that potential students are aware of the possibilities.

“Our outreach teams go out to secondary schools, to students pre-GCSE’s and focus on showing the opportunities, the diverse skill sets that studying games development provides,” says Rodriguez. “We encourage people to think about the courses, the opportunities and the transferable skill sets needed to create games that can be used in other areas such as TV, medical, architecture, fashion retailing.”

The NFTS has made a specific Anti-Racism Commitment, highlighting steps for long lasting and systemic change and resulting in a more diverse industry for years to come. This has led to a dedicated outreach to under-represented groups, including a successful NFTS For You access event, designed to empower diverse students and give them the opportunity to learn more about the school and future career options. 

Reaching young talent

In Cambridge, there has been a similar focus on attracting interest at an early age since 2016. This is an area where all local authorities were falling below the national average for the education and employment prospects of disadvantaged children. Although Cambridge has a world-renowned university, and there are nearly 50 games development companies in the city, local children did not dream of moving beyond playing games to making a living from creating them.

Setting up an annual festival was seen as a logical solution. Now a registered UK charity, the STEM educational initiative FXP Festival is supported by Cambridge University Press, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge Regional College, North Cambridge Academy plus various games companies. It focuses on young people aged 12-19 in order to open their eyes to the realistic possibility of a career in the creative digital sector, and to make the crucial connection between that career and their Computer Science lessons at school. 

The festival encourages participants to explore a range of skills and capabilities – from teamwork and communication, to coding, design, creative writing and storytelling. It set out to showcase career paths and demonstrating how these careers might be achieved, enabling FXP to inspire the next generation of games makers.

At the centre of the event is a three-day games jam, where students work in teams to create an original computer game concept, or design and develop an original game. Completely free to attend with accommodation and all the required equipment provided where necessary, the FXP Festival attracts a diverse range of participants, from those experienced in coding to those more interested in creative concepts and the artistry of games design. 

Introducing female students to the world of game design and development has always been a key objective for FXP. The organisers work with teachers and colleges to encourage them to engage female students with the initiative. The first all-female team took part in 2017, and won the concept design category. 

Rowan, one of those female team members, is now studying Computer Science at the University of Warwick and planning to do a masters in Visual Effects. She credits FXP for opening up her career prospects: “It throws you in at the deep end in the best possible way. The only real way to learn game-making is to make games. I took up the art role in the competition with virtually no experience at all, having been much more interested in the coding side of things. But then I found a passion for 3D modelling and visual effects that I’m looking to pursue it professionally.”

Although the number of female students is increasing, there is still much that needs to be done, as the example of Emel Mehmet shows. She graduated from University of East London in 2019, where she was in a class of 40 students, but only five were female.

“I don’t think it was a problem with the course - just that not a lot of women were aware of the pathway,” she explains. We never experienced any sexism. It was not a tickbox – ‘X number of females on the course’. They had a genuine interest in encouraging us to apply and take part. It is not a case of getting students to apply, just more visibility. You need to see girls doing game development in the course materials given to prospective students.”

Equal opportunities everywhere

Location can make a difference in terms of student diversity within an academic institution. Rodriguez says: “Ravensbourne has one of the most diverse games development courses available. Most of our students come from North Greenwich, Peckham, Newham. Many of the students are the first in their family to go to university. We are tapping a very diverse ethnic population in this area, and also in terms of gender, queer, trans and non-binary students.”

Over at the NFTS, Alan Thorn notes that the school’s 2022 cohort is the most diverse to date: 32% of students are ethnically diverse, 25% are LGBTQ+, 24% disabled and 21% from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds. 

“Through dedicated outreach and advertising, financial assistance and student support we will continue to build on these key figures leading to more talented, diverse games makers and storytellers entering the industry,” he adds.

Reflecting this diversity within the actual courses being run at colleges and universities is equally important – and not just in terms of the course material.

“The challenge is to become even more diverse in staffing and contacts within the industry,” says Rodriguez. “We have been building a team that is diverse in race, gender and encourage talk about experiences and the diversity mix. We go out of our way to get as many people of colour, women, trans, non-binary and queer.” 

Universities and colleges encourage students to think outside the box, to be creative and reflect their diversity by working on their own projects. Frequently this means having to change the mindset of the students themselves, who are often initially focused on creating games that reflect what is already available within the industry. Lecturers commented that there is a feeling that students think they have to make what appeals to the market, and they have to be quickly disabused of this idea, stressing the need to reflect other cultural traditions or their own personal experiences. 

Reflecting on her course experience at UEL, Mehmet says: “We were encouraged to be diverse in our interests and not just focus on the material they gave us in class. A lot of the time we were creating our own. They might say to us, choose any game and write about the story progression such as a courtroom where we had to see the two different sides of a story, victims and perpetrator.” 

At the NFTS, the aim is to encourage students to reflect not just on the technical craft but on storytelling, too. Thorn says: “Our students often create games that are personal, meaningful and culturally important to them, and it offers them a platform for sharing their personal message and values. As a result, I’m proud that our graduation games have covered many interesting subjects through their stories and gameplay: autism, mental health, folklore, gender identify, sexuality, environmentalism, conservation and lots more.”

Changing attitudes

By focusing on diversity within its widest aspect, universities are already identifying the future trends and changes transforming the games development sector in order to provide the vocational courses that students require to succeed in the industry. 

Falmouth University has just become one of a small group of universities to offer an esports course, an area which has experienced considerable sexism in the past. Among its students is a final year games development student, Elise Dennis, who is not only an aspiring games designer but also a keen player of the shooter game Valorant. She represented Falmouth University at the Women in Esports Conference, designed to provide access for women within this fast-evolving sector of the games industry. 

“As a female player, there’s a lot you have to put up with,” she says. “For lots of people, it’s too much.” 

She believes that sexism is turning women away from involvement in esports, and believes that the new course at Falmouth will make a difference by offering access into a wider range of job opportunities. “The course isn’t specifically about players. It encompasses the production and management side of esports, which is a huge field that’s blooming right now, and is looking for talent left, right and centre. There aren’t enough people going into it and the industry needs skilled workers.” 

Creating those links between students and prospective employers is seen as crucial to the long-term future of all aspects of the games development industry. Talking to universities and students, it is clear that there is a distinct need for greater collaboration between students, education organisations, universities and companies. 

The success of FXP highlights this vividly. Staff from local games companies mentor students throughout the festival, and have created video modules outlining ways students can approach game concept and design, game narrative and game production. FXP also hosts a careers fair where games and tech companies and higher education institutions can meet students and talk about opportunities.

Developing contacts within the industry is essential for students planning to enter the sector. Mehmet says: “Getting the foot in the door is the hardest. It is a matter of who you know. There are often not enough opportunities for new graduates, a lot of positions require two or three years experience but how do you get experience if you can’t get a job? There needs to be more internships, and periods of work experience. Lack of this does hold people back.” 

Providing work experience opportunities can make a tremendous difference. As a result of her involvement with FXP, Chloe, a female student (previously described by her teacher as disengaged with education) became a HackLab ambassador and took part in work experience with international technology company Arm. It enabled her to gain further understanding of the variety of career paths available to her, and consolidate her interest in computer programming. 

At Ravensbourne, considerable stress is laid on providing opportunities for students to develop their own contacts. Rodriguez says: “We encourage students to network, to engage with companies, companies to engage with us, and for students to be part of the wider games community. They need to make connections, attend the conferences, the networking events including diverse networks such as women in games, queer developers, and so on. You have to go out and look for the opportunities and the contacts.”

Thorne adds: “We invite people from the creative industries, both in and outside of games to visit the school, speak with our students directly and to feedback on their work. In addition, all students have access to exclusive NFTS Masterclasses, hearing directly from acclaimed film, television and games makers from around the world. Our students attend well-established and well-connected games events in the UK, such as Develop:Brighton and EGX. At EGX, our second-year students exhibit their graduation projects from their own stand where their game can be play-tested and viewed by industry and the public.”

The path to a career

The job market has become much more competitive, games development companies are no longer the only option open to graduates. Students graduating from these courses are aware of the transferability of their newly acquired skills, and of the opportunities available to use those skills not just within games development companies but also in other areas such as films, training, culture and entertainment. 

Many such graduates will also be inclined to be entrepreneurial, and seek to create their own initiatives. This was the route taken by Kingston University graduate Christian Facey and his business partner Wilfred Obeng. They founded AudioMob, an audio advertising company for mobile gaming using innovative technology allowing players to continue playing while listening to adverts without being interrupted by videos or banners. 

With clients like Warner Music and Ministry of Sound already secured, Facey is already planning for ­­­the future: “We want to develop our technology, increase diversity within the games technology and entrepreneurial sectors with a mentoring programme for Black 18 to 25 year olds. We are only just getting started.” 

Ultimately, success in ensuring diversity within the games industry, bringing in the wider talent needed for future prosperity comes down to the willingness of companies to become more diverse. 

Reflecting on her own experiences of searching for work, Mehmet commented. “Companies say they are diverse, but whether this matches reality is another matter. It may be a coincidence, but I went on interviews where I was the one girl who came in for an interview, and all the others were older white men.”

Game development companies are recognising the need to become more diverse, reflecting the breadth of the social mix in the modern world and are beginning to increase their involvement with educational institutions as a way of attracting future employees. Over at Ravensbourne University, Nick Rodriguez has noticed that companies are beginning to appreciate the need for diversity. 

He concludes: “When we talk to companies, one of the things they are appreciating is the need to recruit people from wider backgrounds. The recruitment people of many companies are keen on all aspects of diversity in the equation: queer culture, gender, everything.”

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