IGDA Academic Summit

Held during the 2002 Game Developers’ Conference, San Jose, California, March 19 –23, 2002

by Rhonda Schauer

The 2002 Game Developers’ Conference was held March 19 –23 in San Jose, California. One of the many interesting events was the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Academic Summit, which took place during the first 2 days of the conference. The IGDA Academic Summit provided a forum for participants to examine the relationship between academia and the game development industry, and to discuss how to make this relationship more beneficial for both groups. 

The summit was divided into 2 parts. The first day the participants discussed past, present, and future forms of cooperative research between academia and industry. Speakers discussed why their projects succeeded and how they might improve cooperative projects in the future. The second day was dedicated to the IGDA Education Committee's curriculum project, which is a list of suggested topics for study in a game-oriented curriculum. This project will be presented in a forum at the Educators Program  at SIGGRAPH 2002.

Day 1: Academic - Industry Research Projects

The first panel was a discussion about the different motivating factors and constraints placed on each of the two groups. During the discussion, industry’s needs were identified as: code to make their projects work and the people to write it, theory to apply to their projects, and credit for their role in the work they produce or facilitate. Academia’s interests were identified as the opportunity to publish and obtain grants, the opportunity to exhibit work in galleries or other venues, and the need to offer courses of interest to their students.

The next session was a series of 4 case studies, each discussing a successful collaboration between academia and industry. For example, one of the speakers discussed id Software and AI research. A graduate student used the software code to finish his thesis on artificial intelligence. The software company liked the results of the research so much that they gave him access to more code and enlisted his help on other projects. Reciprocally, the graduate student was able to finish his thesis on a working game engine, which allowed him to focus on his AI work and not have to build a game engine as well.

There were also collaborations discussed, such as that between Carnegie Melon University and Angel Studios, that focused on internships and the successful placement of students within industry.

The UC Irvine presentation brought up an idea that would be relevant throughout the day, which was that academia can be used as a place to try new things that may not necessarily be profitable, and the benefit of that experience can be passed to industry. This coincides with industry’s current need to broaden content and audience. Academia can apply theory from disciplines such as behavioral science to ask the question “what is fun and for whom? ”. Then industry can profit from applying those answers to obtain a wider market for their product.

The “Building Bridges” Panel followed with more ideas on academic-industry cooperation. Shared knowledge was identified as one of the key ingredients to the success of many of these projects. To proceed without some level of mutual information sharing was generally deemed impractical. On the related issue of Intellectual Property rights and ownership, the consensus was to agree on everything beforehand. It was also suggested that collaborators might consider using lawyers to draw up an agreement both parties are comfortable with.

There was also a mention of educational games as an opportunity for collaboration.  One example used was a project involving the Multimedia Innovation Centre at Hong Kong Polytechnic. The project used an interactive game to teach English to Chinese students. To succeed, the project required academics from many disciplines as well as close ties with the production capabilities of industry.

The rest of the day continued the discussion with additional examples of collaboration, comments from the audience, and a closing presentation by Bill Buxton of Alias/Wavefront. By the end of the day it was clear that it is worth the effort it takes for industry and academia to work together. Academics produce results that are relevant to industry and industry produces a product worthy of study by many disciplines. The results of such collaborations will ultimately enrich the medium, while mutual respect and small courtesies go a long way towards making that happen.

Day 2: IGDA Education Committee's Curriculum Project

The second day was dedicated to the discussion of educating students to become game developers.  The main point of the first presentation was to highlight the need for higher education. In the early days of computer games, many developers left college and didn't have any formal training. Also, many aspects of the game industry didn’t need the latest research results or even the latest techniques, especially since the graphics hardware wouldn't support most of them. At that time, education and hiring practices reflected that state. Now, the medium has grown so complex that it is almost impossible to build a successful career in games if that career doesn’t first start with some form of higher education.

The next session was a series of very diverse curriculum case studies. There were schools that gave tenure based not only on publications, but also on industry projects as well. Some had a programming focus and others were more heavily weighted towards art or social sciences. Many had programs that utilized aspects of both. Even the duration of the programs differed, with some as short as one year and others as long as three. Regarding this diversity, the general consensus was to encourage schools to decide their focus and communicate that effectively to potential students. (For information about a particular school, see the links at the end of this document.)

The rest of the day covered the IGDA Education Committee's curriculum project. The project provides a set of options from which educators can select appropriate elements that match their personal, professional, and institutional goals. It is an attempt to describe core knowledge areas and not to dictate content.

First, the group presented the guiding principles that shaped the project. These principles include the idea that gaming is interdisciplinary and that specialization is not necessarily the way to get specialists. They also felt that the analysis, practice, and context of the medium are all equally important. Although the project is career oriented, the primary focus was teaching people to learn, and not a purely vocational approach.

These ideas were further discussed during the rest of the session and the following Q&A period. The idea that, although games are an interdisciplinary medium, specialization is not necessarily the way to get specialists initiated many comments. The essence of the discussion was that education for games should provide a shared vocabulary and knowledge base. Participants envisioned this to resemble the way a film school provides a common context for film students. The consensus was that this shared context should grasp the interdisciplinary nature of the medium, while allowing for specialization. An illustrative example was taken from film, comparing the work of Ford, who primarily learned on the job, to the work of Copola, who had formal training.

Related to a shared context, was the issue of archiving games. The need for a canon of games was identified as essential to building this shared context. It was also deemed necessary to begin the work of examining social context and history. Several members of industry commented that they often have difficulty finding copies of the older games they've worked on. It was also mentioned that Stanford is currently collecting games as artifacts.

The interrelationship between analysis, practice and context brought up another important point, which was the need to teach students basic production skills. Theory, history and even proficiency in their chosen area will be of little use to students if they don’t have the basic skills to apply them in production. These skills included finishing a project and working on teams. The experience of creating a product and marketing it was also identified as important. Several industry speakers indicated that they viewed academia as a filter for those who couldn’t grasp these tasks.

The need to teach people to learn was also discussed. Participants encouraged schools to focus on not just training employees that can create content or write code, but to do so in a way that will enable them to add to the discourse of the medium. The importance of autonomous behavior and developing a strong academic foundation were the primary topics of this discussion.

A final idea discussed was the role of academics as diplomats between the students and industry.  During this discussion there was the suggestion of academic hires within the games community. Also, most participants considered educators to be the primary mentors for students, as opposed to developers performing this task.  

The IGDA Academic Summit facilitated the ongoing dialogue between academia and the game development industry. It was an honest and respectful discussion that will likely result in significant progress in the relationship between the two groups and also the medium itself.


Curriculum Case Studies

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Comparative Media Studies Program
  2. Hong Kong Polytechnic - Multimedia Innovation Centre
  3. Liverpool John Moores University - International Centre for Digital Content
  4. Carnegie Mellon University - Entertainment Technology Center
  5. DigiPen Institute of Technology
  6. Georgia Tech, Program in Information Design and Technology, School of Literature, Communication, and Culture