GDC: A brighter future for collaboration between industry and academia

bright-futureMotivate. Play. "seeks to form a bridge between the gaming and scientific communities, offering analysis and commentary on games from a social sciences perspective"--it's right there in our mission statement. As such, it's exciting (and somewhat validating) to see the impact of academia in an industry-centric event like GDC. In one panel, the floors of Naughty Dog were described as "littered with [computer science] papers" that had been devoured by the developers. In another, Noah Falstein--7th employee at what was then LucasFilm Games--gave a shoutout to self-determination theory as a "revelation" that changed his approach to game design. Brian Schwab (Senior AI/Gameplay Engineer II at Blizzard Entertainment) highlighted AIIDE, an annual conference that bills itself as "the definitive point of interaction between entertainment software developers interested in AI and academic and industrial AI researchers," and noted that the collaboration between academics and industry figures there has been incredibly beneficial to both. (Social science has not been entirely missing from the conversation there, either--Schwab's book "The Psychology of Game AI" comes out in summer 2014.)

Even so, everyone to whom the question was posed agreed that there was far more room for productive collaboration. Here are a few of the points that three major figures in game design programs at USC, NYU, and UC-Santa Cruz--Frank Lantz, Jane Pinkard, and Richard Lemarchand--made when Matthew Burns of the University of Washington raised the topic:

  •  It's already happening organically to a certain extent, partly due to games that have their roots in academia getting critical reviews in the larger conversation on independent games, e.g. Facade, Journey. The creation of thatgamecompany was cited as an example of something great that benefited from collaboration between professional game designers & academics, as were FoldIt, World of Goo, and Portal predecessor Narbacular Drop.
  • The industry is increasingly interested in art and indie games coming from the academic community; opinions were divided on the degree to which game design research taking place in the academy was having an impact
  • A caveat to the above points: not necessarily true of AAA studios; Jane emphasized that there's so little time in the commercial development cycle to do outside research that academia is generally off the radar
  • Richard argued that through game design research, academics have a "great opportunity to spark the public's imagination" -- game design is a potentially accessible topic that is not yet in the public discourse
  • The publish-or-perish model of academia means that much research goes unread (by anyone--not just the industry). More accessible, less jargon-filled papers may have more of an impact--Towards Minimalist Game Design was cited as an example.

More on these topics as the conference unfolds. Although crosstalk between academics and developers remains restricted to fairly isolated contexts, a brighter future for collaboration appears to be on the horizon.

GDC: A brighter future for collaboration between industry and academia by Gabriel Recchia, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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