Hard Sells
(or working a university video game program)
Part 1 of 4


I work as a lab assistant at the university. This university has a video game program. In fact, I happen to be a VIDEO GAME PRODUCTION LAB ASSISTANT. Because of this, I'm in the frustrating position of having people professing how much they want my job. Every day. They get pissed off because they think they know how to do my job. I tell them that I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. They wonder why they aren't getting money for watching people play video games. I tell them there's far more to it than that.

"Really?" they ask.

"You have to know your stuff," I say.

"I do!" they say.

I then decide not to prove that they are wrong. This is a very difficult decision.

The video game program has a director. We'll call him: Johnny.

Johnny is the one responsible for all these experimental 499 classes with names like "Video Game Production" and "Quality Assurance in Interactive Software." People whisper of the one million dollar maximum on his corporate card. He certainly seems to use it, mostly on tablet computers and Dells with gigs of RAM and DVD burners and Sony LCD monitors. Johnny talks the talk with everyone he can. Video game program, future video game development minor, industry stars as professors, future "world-class" designers... all are here.

And he loves his video games.

He gushes superlatives at anything related to video games. He knows what to say about the hot items of the month. He understands how big Half-Life 2 is and knows all the adjectives and adverbs thrown around in describing it. Halo 2... he knows THAT is a big item. Same with Doom 3. He knows enough to try to attract Microsoft and id to the campus for an all-day event to show off wares and give the games a pedestal in academia: the win-win situation.

But watching him play an FPS is PAINFUL. Watching him play almost any game induces cringes in veteran players that are loud enough to frighten ladies and small animals. A fellow lab assistant put it very kindly: his play was so utterly biblical. He lets not the right hand know what the left is doing. Movement while turning in Halo was a chore for him. Adding the shooting element turned a one-sided slaughter into a slightly faster one-sided slaughter as the Master Chief did an exceptional job of positioning himself directly in front of enemy fire before spraying inaccurately into the aliens. "Man, I love this game," he would say.

"When did you first play it?" I asked.

"Right when it came out," he said.

"Brhjakdlrgh," opined my brain.

And fighting games! Johnny loves him some Soul Calibur 2. Playing against him was an exercise in frustration as I kept myself from getting too many perfects. Watching him play the computer in Weapon Master mode was... amazing. Watching him get slaughtered by the later stages. Watching him not understand that when the game tells him to beat the opponent with wall slams, it might be a good idea to hit the opponent into the wall.

Watching him NEVER get frustrated. "Man, I love this game," he would say. No thrown controllers. No angry words. No semblance of an attempt to improve.

His play made me think: is it possible to really love a game without knowing how to play? Is it possible to love video games without understanding them? And this is the person who wants to teach students how to MAKE video games! A little stretching and we get a few more questions: Is it possible to make video games without knowing how to play them? Can we really understand games without knowing how to play them? Can we make video games without really knowing them?

The answer, of course, is: unimportant. The real question is: do video games really work in an academic setting. The answer is: dependent on how much tuition money the school gets from the courses offered. Right now, we're getting a lot of money; therefore, minors and certificate programs are coming. Dozens upon dozens of Xboxes are bolted next to computer workstations. The "latest and greatest" games are kept in locked cabinets for game production students to perform "research" on. Two X-Arcade units sit in the Information Technology Program main office; one is yet to be wired up while the other proudly displays PaRappa.

"PaRappa... interesting choice." I mention to Johnny.

"Huh?" he asks.

"Nice X-Arcade units," I say before changing the subject.

As a lab assistant, I hold labs twice a week. The first one happens to be at 9 AM; this usually turns into two hours of rest and relaxation for me as these students enjoy showing up at my 1:30 lab. When students did arrive, I tried to engage them in some idea shuffling with regards to our recent lectures. One question I might pose is: do you think the graphics from Rebel Strike were a good example to bring up in class? Another possibility is: does Ikaruga have anything close to an AI? Another is: do you think this game needs something like A* for pathfinding, or could it cheat with predetermined paths?

This method lasted a grand total of: four weeks. If there's anything I've learned, it's that students aren't interested in discussing things. Which is not to say that they aren't interested in learning things; they are! However, learning for most people means learning something that's new. For these students, video games are not new. Their ideas are CORRECT because they are their PERSONAL ideas. Ideas they've created and lived through and live by.

For my part, I did my best to shatter that idea in my students. While I think that my group is starting to get the gist of it, other sections don't seem quite so developed. The professor in the production class is doing his best to get the students to recognize that there is a new METHOD that needs to be learned. The students, however, are not letting go of their old ideas. Other professors in other video game program classes aren't helping by saying: "All of you are experts in video games."

This was the single worst thing that could have been said. After that early lecture in the semester, nearly all of that class has gone from week to week without reading the assigned texts. A lecture on foreign markets turned into a discussion on marketability and localization that ignored a key idea of distribution networks. A lecture on untapped markets turned into students being allowed to groan about how dumb it is to make games for women rather than a discussion of crossover platforms and other unaddressed audiences like the elderly. Free discussions brought out the biases and pent up anger that the industry has created in these students, unchecked by any semblance of control or common sense.

I couldn't help but sigh at us, the sorriest bunch of self-professed games experts I've ever seen.

Are there any real games experts out there? We have movie historians, literature historians... where are the video game historians? Surely, there are people that can rattle off the list of people working for Bruce Artwick in the early 80s, or can theorize why Centipede attracted so many women to arcades. There must be someone that can talk seriously about the evolution of the arcade cabinet, or the early problem of standardized joystick layout. Maybe a certain someone that can explain how early game financial theories evolved into what we have today. Someone that can reel us in, tantalizing us with raw knowledge. Someone that can recognize that we shouldn't be content in what we already know. Someone that can frustrate us into: actually learning something NEW!

Johnny, however, doesn't believe in frustration. A game lab session he recently visited featured dozens of active workstations, including a Sony Wega crowded around as the sounds of Super Smash Brothers Melee filled the air. Students were playing True Crime and The Simpsons: Hit and Run, Soul Calibur II and Rallisport, Mario Sunshine and Max Payne 2. They were content, electric, satisfied, fired up... anything but frustrated.

"This is the way I envisioned this lab," Johnny noted.

He doesn't notice the one person in the far corner, shaking his head at some BulletML files he's working on. "It's too difficult," he says of the bullet patterns it creates. He wonders how to make it seem more logical while keeping it challenging. I wonder if he's the only person in this particular group who cares about making a video game. That is what this program is designed to do, right? Right?

He must be frustrated, I think.

Vincent "TA" Diamante needs overtime pay

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[Part 1]

[Part 2]