The godfather of UK gaming

Ian Livingstone authored interactive fantasy books before co-founding Games Workshop in 1975 that brought the world Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer, among others. In the 1980s, he recognised the potential in the emerging video games industry and began working with Domark, later acquired by Eidos Interactive, which has produced some of the industry’s most celebrated titles, including Tomb Raider and Hitman. Now referred to as one of the founding fathers of the UK’s games industry, Ian recently visited the region to speak to SME owners at the launch of Teesside University’s Leading Growth programme. Alison Cowie spoke to him afterwards where he shared his radical solution to addressing the skills gap in tech

You’re in the region to talk to SMEs about your business journey as part of Teesside University’s Leading Growth programme. Why is it important to support new and small scale enterprises?

The world has been transformed through technology and in a post-Brexit world we must ensure that businesses are supported and the right talent is coming though. Also, that there’s investment available to them and people understand the business opportunities out there. The global market can be reached quite simply via the internet nowadays. Any person with a creative idea can turn that into goods and services and instantly launch them internationally – whether you’re in China, France, South America or wherever. It’s important to get that message out there and encourage more people – particularly young people – to have an entrepreneurial mindset; turn them from being a job seeker to a job maker.

You co-authored the landmark 2011 Next Gen. report, which you described as a “complete bottom up review of the whole education system relating to games”. How did this come about?

I’ve worked in the tech industry for some 40 years and over the last 20 years I’ve realised how difficult it was to get software engineers at a high enough standard – not just in the games industry but in all digital and creative industries. I complained about this to Ed Vaizey, the former minister for culture, communications and creative industries, and he tasked Alex Hope [CEO of Double Negative, a visual effects company in London] and me with writing the Next Gen. review, with the help of Nesta.

In our research, we found that most of the problems associated with a lack of tech skills began in schools and the way that children were being taught technology.

Children were effectively being ‘bored to death’ with ICT, which is a strange hybrid of office skills and teaching them about Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel. They were being told how to use technology but not given the knowledge to create their own. Effectively, how to read [technology] but not how to write [technology].

So, what’s the solution?

Our number one recommendation was to have computer science as an essential discipline on the national curriculum. I would argue that computer science is the new Latin because it underpins the digital world in the way that Latin underpinned the analogue world.

A lot of education is based on academic testing and whether you remember knowledge. If you get a question right, you’re ‘able’ and if you get it wrong, you’re ‘less able’.

Computational thinking allows you to solve problems in many ways, rather than thinking there’s just one answer and you’re either right or you’re wrong.

I would say that every child has the ability to get something right if they’re able to find their own way.

In a world that’s being transformed by technology, where you must adapt to a furious rate of change, there’s no point being able to regurgitate facts because they will have to think on their feet and move with the times. This will better prepare them for the jobs that don’t yet exist.

The World Economic Forum recently backed up this idea by saying the three most important skills for a child in 2020 will be ‘creativity’, ‘problem solving’ and ‘critical thinking’.

Do you think change towards more computation thinking is happening in our schools?

I would say that change in schools isn’t happening fast enough. Exams still reflect a more academic approach. But only five per cent of the workforce are academics. The other 95 per cent of us are required to have some sort of skill base.

Knowledge is, of course, important. I would never get rid of numeracy and literacy. But I think ‘know-how’ is equally important too.

Skills are just as important as qualifications.

What will happen if change isn’t embraced?

In the UK, we have to ask ourselves if we want to be in the driver’s seat of technology or in the passenger seat. If we’re in the passenger seat, we’re at a huge risk of being an outsourcing post for someone else’s grunt work. As the driver, we can set the agenda and be at the forefront of technology.

I think creativity is at the heart of industry – and not only in creative sectors. In science, technology and engineering, we need to be able to come up with new products and services. This requires creativity.

The arts are being stripped out of the school’s curriculum but creativity is what has made us a great nation.

For example, the UK Government thinks we must follow China and have a more role-learning approach to maths. But at the same time, China is looking to the UK to see how it can be more creative. They want move up the value chain – away from goods being ‘made in China’ to ‘being designed in China’.

The value of anything is in its intellectual property.

Creativity has clearly been at the heart of your own success story…

Writing fantasy game books, in many ways, was a kind of guiding point for me for getting children to enjoy what they do.

They were interactive books about empowering the reader and allowing them to be the hero and make the decisions.

They were criticised at the time because they had the word ‘game’ in them but they improved literacy by 17 per cent.

It then became possible to move my content from an analogue world into the digital world, which I thought was amazing. But I soon realised that computer games weren’t just about entertainment.

What do you mean by this?

Cognitively, what’s happening when you’re playing a computer game is that you’re problem solving. You can’t get through a game without learning intuitively and tackling issues. Games also provide a safe environment to fail in. You’re not punished for making a mistake. In fact, the game usually encourages you to try again, giving you the opportunity to figure the problem out in your own time and in your own way.

Games enable creativity. Who wouldn’t want to become an architect after playing Minecraft? They also add context. There’s a game called Rollercoaster Tycoon that’s effectively a management simulation. You have to understand the physics of the ride you build, the staff levels required and how much you charge for coming into the theme park. If you do it right, you win, if you don’t do it right, you can then change the parameters until you do.

What advice would you give someone who wants to create their own games?

There’s three basic parts to gaming: the design side creating the mechanics, the software engineering and programming side, and the art and animation side. First, decide which of these three disciplines you want to focus on. Then, as soon as possible, do your own thing.

The important thing is to make a game. If you fail, take your learnings from that and try again. If you keep doing it, you’ll find a way.

Angry Birds wasn’t Rovio’s first game. It was its 51st game. You shouldn’t be afraid of failure.

The main thing for me when I first started out was that my hobby was playing games and I was very fortunate to be able to turn my hobby into a career. I never set out to make money. In the early days, my business partner, Steve Jackson, and I had to live in a van for three months. It doesn’t seem like hardship at the time because we were living the dream.

So set out to do what you want to achieve and go for it. And if you fail, don’t give up. Take your learnings and move on.

Ian Livingstone
@ian_livingstone

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