Monday, 5 October 2015

Yes, you did it, I read it, but does it *mean* anything?

©Slow Life Games - http://slowlifegames.com

Yes, you did it, I read it, but does it mean anything?

~ the Computer Games Journal editorial blog for October 2015 ~


A young friend of mine, let's call him Phil (since that is his name), told me of his short interface with academia.  He had joined a Management School as an entrant undergraduate and had began, quickly, to get itchy feet.  Although he was still very young, Phil was - is - a businessman.  He had thought that entering a Management School would teach him useful practical skills he could use on the way to, who knows, his first million.


Early on he asked a Lecturer,

"Tell us about your experience of working in business."

And sat back to hear of tales of small and large businesses, start-up companies, failed companies, and such like.  The reply astounded him,

"I have never worked in business.  I am an academic.  I have spent my entire life in education."

Shortly afterwards he button-holed another academic,

"If you were going to teach your children to swim, would you buy them a book to read and talk about swimming, or would you go to a swimming pool?"

The reply was quick,

"I'd go to a swimming pool, of course."

Phil pushed the knife home,

"Then why do you expect us to learn about the business world when all you do is read book stuff at us?"

He left shortly after, and his small business is prospering.


What has this to do with Video Games research?  Everything.  I am, frankly, fed up reading reports of what some academic did with his students in his labs, and being asked to believe that the results reached have any meaning in and of themselves, despite being stretched further to believe that the results have any wider application in practice.

Research is a well-defined structured profession with well-understood boundaries of meaning and purpose.  At the lowest level research tells you about the researcher, the researched and the research environment.  In short the project report tells you what the research means and why this meaning has any relevance to the reader.

If I get a PhD student to write a game, then use it with my students, then ask my students questions about it, then write it up, how do I know it has any wider meaning?  Frankly, this is unlikely due to issues of researcher bias, sampling strategies, power relationships, non-independent data analysis, forces of publish-or-die acting upon the researcher, and forces of publish-and-profit being applied to the journal editors by the title's owners.

Scale this across to the Video Games industry and we see a situation where very little academic published research has any relevance to the workings, staffing and market-orientation of this mega-bucks world-wide industry.

It all starts with the research question.  Just what are the researchers investigating, and why?  Since almost no Video Games academics have ever and even fewer do work in the ultra-secretive and rabidly capitalist Video Games industry, how do these researchers know what the issues that face the industry actually are?

As in Management Science, taught by professors who work in a totally different workplace environment, so Video Games professors cannot understand the inner workings of an industry they do not work in.  Even at the very start of the research process, few Video Games researchers can make a valid start to their studies.  Yes, they might get their work published, but it is frankly irrelevant to the real world of excitement and fear that is Video Games development and creation.

We would not go to a doctor who has only ever worked on corpses and in lecture theatres.  We would not learn to drive in a simulator or via a book.  We could not learn to speak Spanish, Japanese and Russian unless we went to live in situ for many years.  This luxury is not available to Video Games graduates.  It is the in-house expertise of the academic staff that prepare the students; or doesn't.

Here we have the perfect intersection of learning and research.  When academics are acting in their living field, then students learn how to act.  No students is greater than their professor on graduation.

Will we ever see an end to pointless research publications of pointless, meaningless research papers?  Of course we won't.  Could we see more useful research coming out of academic ivory towers which is of direct use to the Video Games industry?  Of course we can.

The challenge is for Video Games academics to start their own games studios, create and write games for the real world, and so learn the meaning of failure, marketing, customer feedback handling, sector targeting, popular game development from tools, multi-skill practice, financial uncertainty, blood, sweat and tears.

This should produce more research papers that the Video games industry would subscribe to and learn from.

In case you think I am battering my nearest'n'dearest or colleagues, let us quickly return to Management Science.  Phil went to hear Sir Alex Ferguson give a talk on Being A Manager in Glasgow (Sir Alex's home city) last week.  Sir Alex is probably the most successful sports manager ever, having led Manchester United FC to huge success and following.

A university has picked him up as a visiting professor, having used his example of successful management as a case study for many years.  I thought this might be Loughborough or another one of the great sports research institutes of the United Kingdom.  No, the university is Harvard; the world's greatest university with the world's greatest Management School.

Why?  Because everything they do is related to the real world, but scrutinised, investigated and reported upon with the sharpest of academic minds.  Where was Cambridge, Oxford, London or Edinburgh when Sir Alex was working his magic in Manchester?

There is a huge gap in applied Video Games research.  Where are the young academics who will storm through and bring us real-world research writing that will then stand the test of time?  I believe - I strongly believe - you are there already, ready and able.  And, believe me, running a Video Games studio and working with your own in-house team of games developers over several years is far more exciting than reading, analysing and writing about yet another 23-34 student SurveyMonkey results.

Real research is exciting!

Dr John N Sutherland
Editor-in-Chief, The Computer Games Journal
Spring Science+Business Publishing, New York, NY, USA
http://link.springer.com/journal/40869

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