Sunday, August 17, 2008

Culture Shock: Student Passion (or lack thereof)

I've recently mentioned the lack of passion I've seen in teachers, compared to that of game developers. It occurs to me that the same complaint can be made of students.

Admittedly, this is largely the teachers' fault. How hard is it to get excited about something when you're learning from someone in the field who just isn't excited about their own work? Still, it's a bit of a surprise for me, coming from a job where everyone is working together as a team to make games... and seeing students working in a totally different way.

In the game industry, at least on the projects I've worked on, most people care about the project. Sure, if you work really hard to finish the work on your plate, your "reward" is to get even more work piled on you. So if you're cynical, you could say that the best "strategy" is to just do the bare minimum you need to not get fired. After all, you're salaried, so it's not like working harder actually means more money or rewards or anything. And yet... that almost never happens in practice, because the real reward is that your game is better. And if you care about the game, and you want it to be a good game, then you'll do whatever you can to make it the best game you possibly can. If you don't care about the game... well, there's a whole big software development industry out there that has nothing to do with games, which will pay you more money for less work. So people don't tend to become game developers unless they have this drive to make great games.

You'd think that the same would be true of game dev students, wouldn't you? Put a group of students together to make a game, and you'd expect them to all work insane hours and do everything they can to make it the best student project ever. After all, it's not like students can't do amazing work.

But in practice, you don't always see this. Sometimes you get an outstanding student team (usually the result of a single outstanding student leader who pulls the team together, and if you removed that one student the whole thing would collapse). But I'm seeing a lot of cases where this isn't happening at all. Some students don't show up for meetings and don't do any work at all -- as if they wanted a free ride, just a grade, and they don't care that this project is something that could go in their portfolio and get them a job (among other things). Students make excuses about why their work is late, when I know full well it's because they were just goofing off and procrastinating, a sign that they don't really care much about their project (they just see it as classwork, not an original project).

I'm still trying to find ways to make sure students get it, that game projects are an opportunity to create something experimental and new and different and original and really really cool (possibly the last opportunity they'll have for the next ten years of their career), and that they should really care about it. But I feel like it's an uphill battle sometimes, like I'm fighting against a dozen years of "education" that teaches students to jump through hoops for a piece of paper with the attitude that the real stuff comes later after graduation.

And it's a bit of a shock for me, even now, because I don't have to deal with this in the industry. I don't have to ask the programmers on a big-budget game to show up to work and give their best effort, because they already do.


Chris Okasaki said...

Part of this is a self-selection effect. In the game industry, you're often seeing people who have worked hard to get into the industry, because they had a passion for it. In college, you're often seeing people who selected that major because...well, because they didn't really know what they wanted to do, and hey, that sounds kind of fun, or if not fun, then at least less un-fun than all those other majors. Those are the people who haven't figured out what their passion is yet.

A. Ortiz said...

I agree, from experience. I've also noticed times when students don't even seem to care enough about the subject at hand to give a thought-out opinion. They'll just throw out whatever they feel is enough to answer a question, instead of really thinking and giving a RESPONSE.

When it comes to late work, I know I'm someone eyes roll to. I'm simply horrible with deadlines. But I can accept that about myself, and have devised a kind of system with whomever is giving me patronage: they'll have a deadline by when they need work, and then they'll have a deadline for me, a few days in advance. That way, despite the fact that I probably will miss my deadline, my work is never not there when needed.

It's like a Band-Aid for a gash, I know. But it's working so far.

M.E. Chung said...

It's so interesting to read this coming from the reverse perspective of your view.

I've generally felt that the students that I've worked with were more passionate about the product that they were pushing out--but it could entirely be based on the fact that our school only admitted students who showed a great deal of passion towards making virtual environments.

dpk said...

As you likely know, this is not limited to the study of video games. Most of high school and much of college is busywork. By the time a student gets to your class -- which is presumably not a first-year class -- they've had many opportunities to become burnt out by the whole educational process.

I am currently in my first year at a community college, and I'm hoping to eventually move on to a 4 year school, to study game design and development.

It's a major bummer that I won't even approach studying game design for a couple more years. Instead, I'll be slogging through mandatory courses -- for example, a foreign language that in all honesty I will probably never speak or read after graduation, micro & macroeconomics ("US/Global studies") which would be more appropriate if I were an aspiring city or world leader, an art class which may actually be interesting but has nothing to do with my educational interests, etc.

I hope that by the time I eventually get in to the classes that I won't be so tired of the "college process" that I will actually gain something from it.

Somewhat related is this link from digg: For Most People, College is a Waste of Time

This is an interesting editorial about our current 4-year degree experience, which are jammed full of prerequisite courses in a broad array of subjects, comparing it to focused certificate programs. The programs waste less of the student's time and may provide more specific information about the student (then-job-candidate) to prospective employers.

Ian Schreiber said...

Chris: Good point. I suppose this is an argument in favor of giving game dev majors some really brutal gatekeeper courses to drive home the point that this isn't just a way to coast through college. Though I have something of a distaste for majors that weed people out rather than just working harder to educate them.

ME: It could be that if you select for passionate students than you'll get them. As a teacher, I've had little say in who gets accepted into the institution I'm teaching at, so I have limited control over this (except to the extent that I choose where to teach, I suppose).

dpk: It's true that this is true for most students, not just in video games. But for me, it's a huge contrast between students and industry in that most people who work on games ARE passionate. In most other industries, this isn't the case, so you've got apathetic students who become apathetic workers -- no surprises there. So that's why it struck me as being odd to see the same thing in games, like somehow student apathy magically polymorphs into industry passion at some point after graduation.

dpk said...


I see what you're getting at. That does seem peculiar. Do your students "own" the project after school is over? That is, is it something they can put on a website or, if it's not a computer game, package and take home and share with friends, or even sell?

Are the passionate people you see in industry former game students, or did they study something else, or perhaps nothing at all? The industry I am in now (general Internet technologies) has a lot of self-taught people. The self-taught people are certainly passionate about their jobs, and perhaps more passionate than the institutionally educated.

Ian Schreiber said...

dpk: Great question, and one that's worth a blog post later (stay tuned). Short answer: it depends on the school. Some schools own the IP of all games created by their students, others give full ownership to the students, and still others have no formal policy which could lead to a lot of confusion if there are ever multiple claims of ownership.

Admittedly, most of the people I know in industry are self-taught; there aren't that many graduates of game-specific programs out there yet (on a percentage basis) because so many of the programs are still really new. You're right, that might be where part of the difference comes from.