Day in the life of a game engines lecturer

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After a brief period working in insurance, Daniel Welsh took a computing software design degree during which he took up part-time FE teaching. He then went full-time into gaming design before joining Uxbridge College in 2006. 

Why and how did you become a games design lecturer?

I started out in insurance validation before I realised it was changing me in ways I didn’t like. So I went back to computer gaming, a subject I’d always loved, and studied games technology at Bradford University. In my second year, I also began working as a freelance software contractor and one of my lecturers suggested I might also enjoy teaching. He later put me on to a friend teaching in a college. I tried it for a couple of weeks and took to it. After my degree, I was a freelance designer for four years, including 18 months in France producing general educational software for local schools (which my French girlfriend translated) and creating online software for Korean and Taiwanese multiplayer games. I then joined the college, which sponsored my teacher training.

What’s your main role?

I’m a video-game design specialist so I teach software design, focusing on specialist and then applied theory - it’s basically about what game design documents are and then building them. I teach about 50 students each week in three years 1 group taking levels 2 and 3. I get the most buy-in from the students when they are building games. They’re happiest when left to work on projects, and it’s here that I can draw the most out of them. 

We teach pure theory for the first term and a combo of both theory and training until the summer, where the students choose what they build. I might, say, teach them how to build a fire hydrant computer model or an environment and then they build their own. In the second year, we cover more theory, animation, illustration and then a major project on a related subject. 

What do you like most about FE teaching?

Seeing the students develop, realise they can do this and then become passionate about it. It’s addictive watching. 

What’s a typical day?

I enter class around 8.45am and then deliver four 90-minute lessons - two before and two after lunch for four days a week and am probably in college till 6.30pm. You can leave much earlier if you are good at time management! First thing I do in the morning is to make sure the computers work and that all the tutorials come up on screen. The students assemble information from the tutorials each week so that by the end of their course they have built their own resources. They work on components to start with. On an average day the first lesson lasts from 9.00 to 10.30, starting with any news about the course and relevant events at the college, and then I introduce the day’s task and say why they are doing it. 

I give them a mini task, call them back after few minutes or longer, break down and discuss what they have just done and then repeat the cycle until the end of the lesson when we have a close-down to talk about what’s happened during the lesson. Then they take a break. 

The second lesson may comprise drawing or some other practical activity - you don’t have to draw well but as a designer, you need to put across visual games ideas to professional artists in a studio when you are designing for real. The students use all types of media, ranging from the computer design program PhotoShop to basic paintbrushes, oils, pencil and paper.

Each week I do 24 hours’ teaching (3.5 days) plus have one day off for my PGCE course. Hours can rise up to 35 a week in some colleges. For me game design is a passion; passion is something I try to inject into my teaching, the students enjoy it and it helps me create a really strong bond with them. 

What specific tasks have you done recently?

We got students to look at the construction of a game design document and how their specialisms fitted into that. They’ve learned on a Mario-style platformer game and worked on an adventure game where they create the world, the back store and the people systems for role-playing.

What is the biggest challenge?

Being able to push all the students in their different specialisms - I might have an animator, a 3D artist, an illustrator and a concept artist in the same room. But there’s never a dull moment and they all enjoy working as a team. 

Anything you are particularly proud of? 

All the students I teach tend to give me full commitment, even the weaker learners. On an individual basis, one guy this year is taking on some pretty cutting-edge stuff in terms of road-racing games. One of my ex-students is now working at Channel 4. And we’ve even had Bafta-nominated students in the department. Around 95% of our students go on to university and 5% find work in a studio. 

What personal qualities and skills do you need?

Two are key. You need strong inter-personal skills. As well as the staff you have a class of up to 19 students with whom you have to have a personal relationship and ‘micro-teach’. It only takes one or two to give your college a bad name. You also have to be organised.

What about background/training/qualifications?

Get a relevant degree and then gain your skills in industry before going on to teach. When I joined Uxbridge College, they paid for me to do an initial six-month teacher training course before putting me on a day release two-year PGCE course that I am finishing in May. I’m shortly due to be sent on CPD training. I also reckon within five years everything will have changed … so you also have to apply yourself to keep up - even if it’s just research into pipelines, hardware, software markets and so on.

What spurs you on to work each day?

It’s simply being able to work with the students and seeing their skills develop.

Interview by Richard Doughty

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