Maintaining an ethical balance in the curriculum design of games-based degrees

M.P. Jacob Habgood


Mainstream gaming studios in the UK generate global sales of around £1.7 billion a year from an industry which employs around 9,000 people in skilled game development roles (Kilpatrick, 2010). It is primarily the financial success and popularity of this industry which has driven the rise of games-based degrees in higher education. Nonetheless, games-based degrees are regularly criticised by members of the games industry as not being fit for purpose (e.g. French, 2008). Most recently they have come under specific scrutiny from an NESTA-backed education review headed up by Ian Livingstone, the President of Eidos (Livingstone and Hope, 2011). This set out to review the ability of the education system to fulfil skills shortages in the UK video games and visual effects industries and delivers a damning appraisal of the status quo. The report goes on to make a range of recommendations for improving the relevance of primary, secondary, further and higher education to the skills required by the video games and visual effects industries.

Sheffield Hallam University runs both undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses in games software development, and is in the enviable position of already meeting many of the report’s recommendations for these courses. They either already have, or are in the process of seeking industry accreditation and enjoy significant industry links¬–including full-time lecturing staff who have come from the games industry itself. Students are taught how to use industry-standard software and get the opportunity to work in inter-disciplinary teams using gaming hardware. The course even has its own student-resourced game studio developing commercial games for the PlayStation minis platform. Nevertheless, this paper will argue that the perspective provided by the Livingstone report fails to acknowledge the complex ethical considerations of designing a curriculum for games-based degrees.

Game-based degrees have an intrinsic appeal which naturally attracts students with a wide range of abilities and motivations for studying the degree. Many students enrolling on SHU’s games courses do so because they aspire to work in the mainstream video games industry and this provides much of the appeal of the course. However, students often arrive with significant misconceptions about the different roles and skillsets required to work in this industry. It is inevitable that not all of them will excel at the wide range of technical abilities demanded of them on the course and only the cream of each cohort will stand a realistic chance of being employed in the mainstream games industry. The remainder will need to apply the skills they have learned on their course to other industries and it would unethical to ignore the career paths of these students as part of the curriculum decisions made for the course.

Based on the Livingstone report, the industry’s solution to this would be to have a very limited number of industry-accredited “centres of excellence”, thus reducing the ‘surplus’ of graduates who are not capable of meeting the technical demands of such courses. However, this perspective seems to ignore the natural process of self-discovery which is a key part of the experience of higher education. Even the most competent students may find their interests evolve or change over the course of their studies. In particular the realisation that working in the games industry requires a higher level of technical competence, demands more unsocial working hours and pays less than other software industries is potentially enough to make even the most talented students reconsider their career aspirations.

This paper will provide a thorough review of the recommendations to higher education provided by the Livingstone report, using the SHU Games Software Development course as a case study. It will describe how we are meeting these recommendations and highlight the fine ethical balance required in making sure that the interests of the whole student body are balanced. It will also examine some of the recommendations to primary and secondary education made by the report. It will consider the ethical implications of a curriculum which puts a greater emphasis on Computer Science education and uses game development as a means of encouraging school students to study STEM subjects. Some practical observations based on previous research experience teaching game development at primary and secondary will be discussed as part of the ethical debate (Habgood et al., 2005).


FRENCH, M. (2008) Sony’s Macdonald calls for educational Centres of Excellence. Develop Online. Hertford, Intent Media.

HABGOOD, M. P. J., AINSWORTH, S. & BENFORD, S. (2005) The educational content of digital games made by children. 2005 conference on Computer Aided Learning. Bristol, UK.

KILPATRICK, L. (2010) Business Sectors: Video and Computer games. London, Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

LIVINGSTONE, I. & HOPE, A. (2011) Next Gen. Transforming the UK into the world’s leading talent hub for the video games and visual effects industries. Bristol, NESTA.