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On the Church of Reason and Punk Game Development

After a talk at IndieCade, Vlambeers Rami Ismail - a self-described university dropout - is lured into a statement on education, punk game dev & academia. The question at hand: is formal education even a necessary in the game industry?

IndieCade East.

Last week, I gave a talk at the first ever New York City IndieCade East. Completely unaware of the expertise level of the audience, I decided to try a talk I’ve wanted to give for a while. Besides at venues filled with peers, I often speak at art- or culture-related events with audiences that have little pre-existing knowledge of the medium. This specific talk (which has gone through an absurd amount of iterations before I felt comfortable giving any version of it) is an entry-level explanation of the ideas and core principles of player agency – without using the words player agency.

Obviously, I needed to introduce Vlambeer and thus I ran with my usual slides – Jan Willem and I met in the train to school and pretty much hated each other right away, but found a common frustration in our game design university. We developed a mutual respect, dropped out because we felt we’d learn more just diving into the big bad world with reckless disregard for reality, founded Vlambeer in 2010 and made lots of games since.

Vlambeer. Yo.

After the talk was over there was a short slot for questions - which one person happily did. This person grabbed the microphone and carefully cleared their throat. This was an academic that ‘couldn’t fail to notice my stance on education’ and pointed out that I might’ve missed a tremendous wealth of theoretical knowledge about my chosen profession. The question that followed this quite frankly eye-opening rant was: ‘Do you know what player agency is?’

For some reason, that rubbed me the wrong way: I had spent a lot of time refining my explanation of the concept, catering it towards less literate people in a way that was hopefully both fun and educational. Here was someone who thought the reason I did it that way was because my assumed lack of formal education likely meant that I did not know the words for what I was trying to discuss.

I am not an academic. I make videogames. I learned how to make videogames by tinkering around with game creation since I was six years old. Somehow, I learned running a company by selling computers at an electronics store; by having a game design cloned and dealing with the supportive yet rough media fallout after that; by realizing I had undersold a game during negotiations because the other party instantly agreed to my opening bid; by having our accountant mail us about a few missing forms.

However, I am completely unsure as to how not having a formal education could be considered a limitation of my theoretical knowledge. One doesn’t need a university to read books or get access to interesting papers. Last year, I visited DiGRA out of sheer interest for the academic side of game development. The notion that the only way to knowledge of a subject is through formal education is mind-blowing to me.

Killscreen decided to write an article about my response to the question at IndieCade, which they framed within a context implying academics might not be relevant to our indie scene anymore.

J.S. Joust

This is equally mind-blowing to me. Many of the indie developers I consider personal heroes are developers that operate on that fine line between academia or theoretical exploration and practical development: conceptual art as many of Zach Gages’ installations or Douglas Wilson’ purposeful exploration of folk games and incomplete game systems being well-known examples of things that have inspired me over the years.

Thus, the whole framing of Vlambeer as a proof that education is inherently flawed is painful. It becomes even more contrived when one realizes that even though we did drop out ourselves, Jan Willem and I have spent a significant amount of our time on workshops, seminars, classes and talks around the world. Less than twenty-four hours before I presented the IndieCade talk that triggered all of this, I was on a stage at Chicago’s DePaul University presenting to a crowd of enthused students about my experiences with starting your own indie studio. A day after that talk, I would be speaking at the Parsons New School of Design alongside Ramiro Corbetta, Davey Wreden and Fernando Ramallo. Another two days later, I would be presenting another business-oriented talk at the IT University in Copenhagen.

For me that question on player agency perfectly illustrated once more that there tends to be a huge gap between academia and practical game developers. It illustrates a mutual feeling of superiority on both sides that results in two parties not seriously conversing on subjects that might push our medium forward. More than anything, it showcases on one side the tendency to disdain of academics towards the ‘simple, thoughtless banter’ of self-didactic developers. On the other side, it lays bare the mistrust of developers for the ‘experience-less self-referring writings’ of academics.

This status quo worries me. On endless occasions, I’ve argued for games to be inclusive of all expressions – and this is no different. Games can easily include punk games and academic exploration, but phrasing it that way would imply that there indeed should be a divide between the two. There needn’t be. They can just be different perspectives, different approaches to the same thing.

It would be absurd to claim that I oppose education. I will happily agree that I am unfit for education as a student. I will without hesitation state that a lot of institutes are falling short of their intended goals. I have not a single regret regarding dropping out. I will heartily recommend anyone who feels similar to how we felt three years ago to get themselves as far away from the system as they can.

Nobody will ever hear me say that in game development, education is a necessity. I’d go as far as to state that I would consider it foolish to say it is. All the same, education not being a necessity does not make it otiose or superfluous – it just makes it something that each and every person should make a conscious decision about.

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