Tag Archives: video game industry

Could Scratch be the Key to Maintaining Canada's Video Game Lead over the UK?

In 2010, Canada overtook the UK as the world’s third-largest video game developer, thanks in large part to an ecosystem of government grants and tax breaks. This support has angered some critics who see it as wasteful government spending, but smart people know which way the wind blows: since we don’t manufacture things any more, it’s in wealthy countries’ best interest to stimulate industries with well-educated and highly-paid knowledge workers who pay a lot of taxes and generally raise the property value of the entire nation.

Nerds: good for the economy.

The UK’s recently-announced 2012 budget makes new allowances for animation and video game tax breaks – a move clearly made to help the United Kingdom regain its foothold and, possibly, the coveted third place spot. But the Brits have another ace in the hole that i think puts them in a better position to leave Canada in the dust in a few decades: Scratch.

Scratch is a programming language from the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s designed for kids, but it’s primarily a learning tool, and has seen use in first-year Computer Science programs. Scratch allows you to snap together LEGO-like blocks of code (computer instructions) to control graphics, sounds, and interactivity. (Indeed, the man who led the development team behind Scratch, Mitchel Resnick, also built the original programmable bricks that eventually became the foundation of the LEGO Mindstorms robotics sets.)

You can upload your creations to the Scratch website, along with the millions of projects that are already there. Best of all, you can download anyone else’s Scratch project and take it apart, remixing any of the project’s code, sounds or assets into your own file. Scratch is free, and it runs on Mac, PC and Linux computers.

Enter Skynet

i’ve said, time and again, that i believe kids should be taught how to program computers from a very young age. It’s looking more and more like the children of developed nations will exclusively use computers as their primary windows into the worlds of work and pleasure, and i’d rather see a generation of people who can make computers work for them, rather than a terrifying dystopia where the machines themselves gain more and more control (see Apple) until we’re just banally pushing a single button like George Jetson, unable to harness the amazing power and possibility these machines provide.

The more kids learn to tinker with machines and write computer code, the less likely we are to flip the script on this master/slave relationship between humans and machines.

(If that all sounds a bit dire, talk to any mechanic who used to tinker with cars prior to 2000. You can’t tinker with cars any longer, because their systems are controlled by computerized instead of mechanical processes. If we don’t keep up, we get left in the dust.)

It starts with putting all of our information on the cloud …

The Livingston-and-Hope of a Nation

Finding that in two short years, the UK had slipped from #3 to #6 in world video game development rankings, the UK’s Minister for Culture commissioned a report from Ian Livingston (President of Edios) and Alex Hope (Co-Founder of Double Negative, an effects shop) last year to figure out what was going on and how to fix it. The resulting findings determined that the problem was seated squarely in (mis)education:

Twelve percent is a lousy number. And i defy Ontario to run a similar report on its schools and get a better score. As anemic as the UK’s placement rate is, anecdotally, i guarantee you it’s far worse here in Ontario. i can’t vouch for the rest of the country, but what we have here in this province is a system akin to jacking a wounded football player up on painkillers so he can finish the game. Eventually, the torn hamstring of a weak education system will bring us down, and Canada will feel its cushy #3 position slipping just as the UK recently has.

And then the UK will do a touchdown dance or something. i dunno … my metaphor doesn’t cross the pond all that gracefully.

Half of Livingston and Hope’s twenty recommendations pertain to elementary-level schools, the first among them being

Bring computer science into the National Curriculum as an essential discipline.

We have no such concept here. i’ve spoken with a number of companies who are developing material for the Prometheus Smartboards that are present in many of the Toronto District School Board’s classrooms, who have told me that they’ve met with resistance from parents and educators if they mistakenly called any of their projects “games”. There’s a sensitivity to the word “game” here that suggests games are an anathema to learning – that somehow games are preventing kids from getting a good education. You need to trojan-horse your way into many schools by using terms like “interactive storytelling” and “interactive digital media” to fly under the anti-game sentiment radar.

It’s a um … interactive physics simulation with a protagonist from the skilled trades who explores the Quiller-Couch conflict of man vs. nature.

Conversely, here’s what the Livingston-Hope Report says:

Recommendation 3: Use video games and visual effects to draw in greater numbers of young people to computer science and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Among the learning languages and toolsets the report recommends for schools is MIT’s Scratch. Get ‘em while they’re young – don’t wait until they’ve graduated high school. Ontario’s colleges do a great job of using video games to draw in great numbers of young people, but to what end? Our strategy is more akin to Honest John luring Pinocchio to Pleasure Island so the boy can smash windows and smoke cigars and make 3D models in Maya with impunity. But we wind up with the same result: a big pile of jackasses who are only fit to work in the salt mines.

We thought we were going to call the shots on the next Splinter Cell game for UbiSoft! Hee-HAW!

Artificial Intelligence

Will the UK regain its #3 video game industry position two decades from now by investing in education? It’s possible. But i think the UK’s efforts should serve as a cue to Canada to investigate its own education system to ensure that the video game economy we’ve nurtured through funding and tax credits isn’t just serum flowing through an IV meant to keep the patient alive, while we fail to feed the patient or change his bedpan … or show any care or concern over whether the patient will one day leave the hospital and walk on his own.

Canada needs its own Livingston-Hope report, with a commitment to act on its findings. The Ministry of Education in Ontario in particular should take a hard look at schools’ programs and success rates, and start denying accreditation to diploma mills in both private and public colleges. The Minstry should audit the use of technology in elementary schools, rather than the existence of it. (You can put a Smartboard in a classroom, but you can’t make it drink.)

We’re paid actors! Handheld devices like Smartphones are banned in most elementary schools, and the Ontario teachers’ union wants to ban wifi too!

Baby Steps

The good news is that we’re taking some steps in the right direction. The joint OCAD/U of T program, which pairs the University of Toronto’s game programmers with the Ontario College of Art’s artists, is having its second annual student showcase soon. The game developers from UOIT (the University of Ontario Institute of Technology) a few towns over are once again joining forces to present their games as well, along with students from Seneca College, Humber College, and the Hervé Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined. Eventually, i would like to see ALL of the schools in the region combine their graduate shows into one big event, which could double as a job fair and a one-stop shop for Ontario (and even national and international) companies seeking to hire new talent. This show means we’re almost there!

In April, the TIFF Nexus group is holding a New Media Literacies conference to try to get kids and educators who give damn about this stuff to meet up and learn from each other. There are lots of great components to this day, including panels and talks from developers, funders and researches.

The highlight of the day (for me, because i’m teaching it 🙂 will be a hands-on Scratch workshop geared at introducing the tool to teachers so they can bring it back to their classrooms or kids’ groups and start mucking around with it right away. (TDSB teachers: did i mention that Scratch is on the Board’s approved list of software, and that getting it installed in YOUR lab/classroom/library is just a phonecall away?? Run, don’t walk!)

The UK might be feeling the sting of losing a leading position in the video games industry, but with the recent incentives announcement and the education recommendations in the Livingston-Hope Report, they’re on the right track to building a sound infrastructure. i worry that Canada, generally (and Ontario specifically) is building a house of cards that’s only one election away from pulling funding and seeing it all topple over. The incentives and funding the country and its provinces have offered are an important component to accelerating Canada’s lead in the industry, but education is a crucial pillar that is being largely overlooked here.

i firmly believe that the first step to investing in the future is sitting down at a computer with an eight-year-old, and showing that kid how to make a cartoon cat walk across a computer using a snap-together code loop in Scratch.

by Ryan Creighton

Video game industry hopefuls could benefit from partnership, exposure

The Baylor Game Club is partnering with gaming industry executives in order to give students a competitive edge as they enter the world of video game development after graduation.

In previous years, the club served as a forum for students to discuss games and their cultural impact, but this year the focus is a more hands-on approach to exploring games.

Dr. Corey Carbonara, a professor in the film and digital media department and adviser for the club, said he is excited about the club’s recent partnerships with industry leaders, which will allow club members to receive valuable feedback and hands-on experience with professionals.

“The industry connections with the game club [are] providing students with a tremendous opportunity to get a total experience with true industry players that they can put on their resume,” Carbonara said.

Gearbox Software has agreed to partner with the club. The company is an award-winning independent developer of interactive entertainment based in Plano that has worked with successful game franchises such as Halo, Tony Hawk and James Bond, names familiar to members of the club.

Carbonara and members of the club spoke with Aaron Thibault, vice president of product development for Gearbox Software Oct. 12 at the Austin Game Developing Conference.

“Mr. Thibault was highly generous with his time and gave us a couple of hours of full focus, not only working on directives of interfacing with the knowledge base of industry professionals, but also expanding out to look at other companies such as Sony [and] Microsoft in particular,” Carbonara said.

The game club has also been invited to participate in a competition sponsored by Microsoft that allows students to experiment with new approaches to game creation and development.

Carbonara has high hopes for the results that could come of the industry involvement.

“When you start to think about that involvement for the game club, that’s pretty awesome,” Carbonara said. “It’s going to be real tangible things with real executives that will allow students to kind of put some novel solutions on some of the problems that they’re facing as an industry.”

Houston senior Tyler Walker, a game club officer, joined when the club started in 2007. He expressed excitement for the new direction the club is taking.

“I think it’s an amazing opportunity and something we’ve needed for quite some time,” Walker said. “Working with actual industry professionals and getting feedback from them on what we’re doing gives everyone motivation to actually get going and work on stuff more.”

The recent steps taken by the club coincide with exposure received (PDF) by the video game development program in the computer science department, including acknowledgement by the state for the program’s innovative approach which combines classes in both film and digital media and computer science.

Frank Gibeau, president of Electronic Arts, a major player in the game development industry, also recognized Baylor’s efforts. He cited innovative programs provided by area schools like Baylor as a primary resource for creating more jobs in the Central Texas area.

“What the president of EA talked about was the amount of quality educational programs directed towards developing students who have an emphasis in understanding how to make games,” Carbonara said. “He mentioned Baylor [and] it made us feel pretty good.”

The club holds official meetings two to three times a year, but members spend most of their time involved in development groups that are organized by officers and faculty to help members develop their ideas.

“If someone has an idea for something, we try to help them get people that might be interested in it as well to work on it,” Walker said.

The club intends to hold an official meeting soon, and new members are welcome to attend. Students are encouraged to join the mailing list by emailing [email protected]

State’s video game industry gets boost

Institute hopes $500,000 grant helps create jobs

An institute founded to advance the state’s video game industry has received a $500,000 federal grant to help jump-start companies and train workers.

The five-year grant was awarded to the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute, which was established this spring at Becker College in Worcester to bolster the state’s $2 billion-a-year industry.

The grant is significant for the institute, which was founded with $200,000 from Becker and the state-run Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. Congressman Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Worcester, said the federal funds will help cement the institute’s role as an industry advocate as the state’s video game sector grows.

“What we want to make sure, when the next wave builds, that people see that there’s an infrastructure already in place in Worcester,’’ McGovern said. “We want this to be the video gaming corridor of not only the Northeast, but the country.’’

Becker College offers an academic program in digital game development that was ranked among the top 10 in the nation by Princeton Review Inc., a test prep and online learning company. Tim Loew, executive director of the institute, said in the first year, the federal grant will be used for marketing, workforce, and business development, and to launch a series of working groups to aid entrepreneurs seeking to start or grow video game companies.

The grant will feed the state’s video game industry with new talent and ideas, thus creating jobs, according to Loew. “This industry is totally driven by talent,’’ he said. “By building a better talent pipeline, we can put Massachusetts in an incredibly advantageous position.’’

Massachusetts game companies employed 1,295 people in 2009, the most recent figures available, according to the trade group Entertainment Software Association. That places the state’s game sector fifth in size, behind California, Texas, Washington, and New York.

Nearly 20 Massachusetts higher-education institutions offer degree programs or individual courses in digital game design and development. Launched in April, the institute is attempting to create jobs by connecting the digital games industry, higher education, and the public sector. “At the very core, the goals are jobs, jobs, jobs,’’ said Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, the former Worcester mayor, who helped launch the institute. “What can we do to create and grow jobs in this sector? Building the workforce through training and development, linking students with internships.’’

The institute and Becker College will partner with seven private video game and interactive media developers that will provide resources and personnel to support the institute’s initiatives.

Michael Pachter, research analyst for Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles, said the idea of a digital gaming institute “makes sense’’ in Massachusetts because of its higher-education options and the number of developers who already reside here.

“These are high-wage, high-profile jobs,’’ he said. “These are the kinds of industry jobs you want to attract.’’

The news is good for an industry that has slipped in recent years, compared to other gaming hubs like California, said Michael Cavaretta, an attorney who represents gaming companies. The institute will be a central office for the industry, he said, and should raise awareness of the state’s ability to support a thriving gaming economy.

“One of the ways California is ahead of us in the digital games industry is in venture capital,’’ Cavaretta said. “Having a working group that focuses on capital in the digital game industry will be helpful to educate and bring a level of comfort to investors in the industry.’’

Canada Video Game Industry: Argument Over Merits Of Subsidies Heats Up (POLL)

Should video game makers be subsidized?

That’s the question at the heart of a debate that exploded in Canada’s gamer community this week after a Maclean’s column asserted that the hundreds of millions of dollars provincial governments have ponied up to bring video game makers to Canada is a waste of money.

The assertion has angered gamers and developers alike, with many taking to Twitter to denounce Jesse Brown’s Maclean’s column. But beyond the personal repartees lies a heated debate about the role of government in the development of private industries.

In a column entitled “Grand theft tax break,” published on Tuesday, Brown asserted that the race between provinces to attract video game companies is a waste of money because the industry is highly profitable and the jobs being created will eventually be sent overseas.

“When developing workforces in, say, Bangalore train enough skilled code-monkeys to undercut local coders, the jobs will quickly migrate to India, leaving little of the creative economy behind,” Brown wrote.

Brown also attacked the “dodgy notion that video game jobs are somehow more valuable than other jobs, and that video game technology is somehow a crucial area that [the U.S. and Canada] should lead.”

He added that this amounted to “magical thinking that has convinced American legislators they are in desperate need of unshaven game devs in funny Internet t-shirts” and “also mesmerized our own Canadian policy makers.”

Within hours, Brown’s comments raised a torrent of objections from video game makers and fans alike.

Nathan Vella, co-founder of Toronto’s Capy Games, took to Twitter to denounce Brown.

Others set their sights on debunking Brown’s arguments. On his blog, Peter Nowak, an occasional Huffington Post Canada contributor, argued that the return on the government’s investment in the industry is more than worth it.

According to a recent study compiled by SECOR for the Entertainment Software Association of Canada – to which I contributed some input – the games industry here employs 16,000 people and will generate $1.7 billion in economic activity this year. That’s not revenue, it’s the amount of dough it contributes to the national economy. At that rate of return, the hundreds of millions the provinces have doled out in subsidies will be repaid in short order, if they haven’t been already.

Moreover, the Canadian industry is growing quickly and is expected to expand 17% over the next two years. That means even more employees and more contribution back to the economy.

Nowak went on to argue that subsidizing the video game industry can have a positive social impact, suggesting that video game companies can lead the way in rejuvenating struggling urban neighbourhoods.

In Montreal, this has meant the revitalization of Mile End, a part of town that was quite sketchy prior to Ubisoft’s arrival in 1997. The same happened to Yaletown in Vancouver. It’s already happening in Toronto; one of the first things I noticed when I attended Ubisoft’s studio opening in the Junction area last year were the high-end condos going up right across the street.

Nowak and others also objected to the argument that the “code monkeys” who program the games will soon be replaced by workers in the developing world. Writing at the Torontoist, Jamie Woo argued that subsidies can just as easily create new businesses.

Often dubbed the acorn model, in Vancouver, the presence of companies like Electronic Arts actually bolstered independent Canadian game studios by building a culture that was hospitable for game development, leading to EA employees splintering off to create their own studios, such as United Front Games. Similarly, the award-winning Klei was started by a developer who worked at foreign studio THQ in Vancouver.

Writing at Village Gamer, blogger Tami takes issue with Brown’s characterization of the video game business.

If that article had been about an ethnic group or any type of visible minority, it never would have been published containing the insults and general slurs it does. It is one thing to be angry about something the industry receives, it is another to wipe a wide brush of insult across those who work in the industry.

All the negativity prompted Brown to qualify his comments a little. In the midst of a heated Twitter exchange, he declared, “I like and respect devs and think they deserve their own [Canadian] industry. … Subsidized gigs for foreign firms make that hard.”

And John Michael McGrath at OpenFile adds another point worth considering:

[I]t’s not like subsidizing culture is new in this country. The province and city trip all over themselves to variously fund movies, television, and music—so why should videogames be any different?

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