An Interview with Kaye Elling lecturer in Computer Games at the University of Bradford
Today I am really happy to have an interview with Kaye Elling. Kaye is a currently a lecturer in Computer Games at the University of Bradford. Kaye has over 12 years industry experience in game design, with titles such as GTA2, Premier Manager and Bratz on portfolio.
Recently she shot to fame after releasing the 51 things every game student should know, which has now grown into the 100 things every game student should know. With all of this game knowledge, I wanted to pick her brain on games, gamification and women in games.
You have a varied career in video games, how did it all start for you?
By accident! In 1995 I had just graduated from university with a degree in illustration and (stop motion) animation, and a complete lack of any desire to go to London where all of the animation was happening at that time. A friend of mine had got a job at a local games company and said they were offering week-long artist internships. I gave myself a 2 day crash course in 3D Studio R4 and went along out of desperation more than anything else. 4 years later I was still there – although thankfully was being paid by then – and had fallen in love with 3D graphics and game development.
What prompted the move from game development to teaching?
Foolish idealism and a desire to be part of the solution not the problem. I had been tasked with recruiting 7 junior artists for my team, and waded through exactly 100 applications from university graduates. Of these only a hand full were good enough for shortlisting, and of the three offers we made only one was accepted. Even I could do the maths on this and so I decided to do something about it. At this stage I had been in games for 13 years and had been commuting on a weekly basis for nearly half that time. I was ready for a change and wanted to live full time in the house I was paying the mortgage for, so decided to take the leap into academia. Silly woman.
I found out about your work through the now 100 things every game student should know. I love it and think that much of it can apply to almost anyone, but what made you decide to produce it?
Fundamentally I am a mean spirited human being who is very adept at complaining and sarcasm. I’m also quite passive aggressive, especially during assessment periods when I have to do an obscene amount of marking and am not allowed to punch anyone. Initially the “100 Things” was going to be a short general feedback slide show for my students, where I could share the kinds of poor practice I saw again and again in an anonymous and pointed, but humorous way. After I had shared a couple of slides on Twitter just for kicks, I realised that it was getting a good response so threw caution to the wind and went ahead and published it on my blog (which I never get around to updating). The response was huge, and I had over 20K views within a couple of days. Seems that I struck a chord with many industry people who are just as adept at complaining and sarcasm as I am. Huzzah!
You are passionate about women in the games industry. Can you tell me a little about what you think the issues are and how you think we can solve them as an industry.
The issue of Women in Games has been on the industry radar for about a decade, and in many ways not much is changing. There is still a shocking gender imbalance in game development, even though other media industries (e.g. web and graphics) have no such problems. These days though, the main issue is the toxic atmosphere surrounding online games and gamer communications and the extremely vocal misogyny that still hasn’t been addressed by industry. I think this is the main hurdle to getting some of those many female gamers that now exist into development. Until the industry takes a very vocal stand against the appalling abuse of women who have the “audacity” to speak on the subject of games publicly, or heaven forfend to actually play games outside of the pink ghetto the industry has created for them, then nothing will change. I’m getting more militant about this as I get older and as I hear the same woolly, well-meaning discussions again and again. This is why I’m doing a doctorate in this area, because we need some hard hitting figures to make industry wake up and smell the shitstorm. ‘Scuse my language.
On to gamification, do you have any experience of gamification, either design or just usage of systems that are gamified.
Gamification happened after I’d left the industry, but the concept of gamification is extremely useful for student projects. I use it in my teaching to help students understand motivation for play, and the kinds of features all games benefit from in this social, multiplayer age of gaming. It also helps students out of the misconception that games and play have to happen in just one small, technical sphere of the wider entertainment industry. Play can happen anywhere and games can touch so many parts of people’s lives. I’m a big fan of the PlayGen Gamification Toolkit and have had some hilarious classes where we’ve gamified everything from going to the friday night disco to breaking out of prison.
As a games developer, what is your opinion on gamification in general, both the current state of it and its potential for the future?
I’m concerned that gamification has got itself into a bit of a rut as a buzzword for the marketing industry which doesn’t really understand its power and potential. Just like with the explosion of social networking, as soon as something new and zeitgeisty appears, it gets exploited by those who don’t really understand it. At the moment I think here are too many gamified ideas vying for the limited bandwidth that consumers have available. How many loyalty schemes can you have before market saturation occurs and it’s impossible to be loyal to them all? I think gamification as an idea needs to expand into new areas outside of simple brand loyalty, but also to shovel out the clones and lacklustre attempts at marketing in favour of fewer, stronger contenders.
Considering that gamification is about using things that make games interesting, rather than actually creating games – do you feel that games designers can help create better gamified experiences?
Absolutely. At the moment I think gamification is being pushed by the PR and advertising industries who represent the interests of the brand, whereas it needs to be pulled along by professional designers who have the end user’s needs at heart. You can’t push people into engaging with gamification, you have to tempt them to you, and that takes subtlety and experience.
Do you see gamification as a potential career path for some of your students, is it something you have ever spoke about with them?
I don’t think that gamification represents a career path in itself, because it’s just one of the many facets of game design. Sure, there will be designers who specialise in gamification just as there are designers who specialise in dialogue or control systems. For my students gamification isn’t a priority because they are fundamentally game designers (or artists – I run two games courses at Bradford) and they want to work in games, not bring games to other industries.
What games are you currently playing?
I still haven’t weaned myself off Minecraft yet which takes up most of my gaming time, though I’ve recently dipped a toe into Fraxinus (the Facebook game that matches DNA patterns to help research Ash dieback in real life). I can see that becoming very addictive. Otherwise I’m still playing my staunch RTS titles Battle for Middle Earth and Dawn of War Dark Crusade because I’m such a huge geek and won’t let them go.
What is your favourite game of all time and why?
Dungeon Keeper! It’s a classic! It also has an extremely British sense of humour and to me represents the best of Molyneux’s design principles. Bullfrog was a great British studio and you can feel the passion in every detail of Dungeon Keeper’s design, despite its many flaws. I still play it occasionally thanks to the peeps at GOG.com and I’m very grateful I no longer have to keep a Win95 machine in operation to do so **makes kissy noises**.
I would like to thank Kaye for taking the time to answer these questions. If you would like to find out more, why not follow her on twitter K_0 and ask her! Also, make sure you read 100 things every game student should know, there is advice in there that is good for everyone!
If you are interested in the games courses that Kaye teaches, please visit http://www.bradford.ac.uk/