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School Daze


Back in March, someone on the LinkedIn group for my Alma Mater, Durham University, posted a question asking how much people used in their daily lives of the various subjects they learned at secondary school (that’s junior high and high school to American readers: think Years 1-7 at Hogwarts, but not so much fun). The poster was collecting data to help him convince 11-14-year-olds that subjects like English, math, and science would come in useful in their lives.

At some time in my games career I’ve used just about everything I ever learned at school and college. Here are the subjects I took at O- and A-level (to continue the Harry Potter analogy, that’s OWLs and NEWTs respectively) that I’ve used consciously during that time:

Maths: I took O-levels in both Maths and Statistics (and Further Maths, which was pretty much a freebie because it consisted of one maths paper and one statistics paper), and an A-level in Pure and Applied Maths. There was nothing in Computer Science below degree level back in the 70s when I was at school. Obviously maths is a good grounding for anything computer-ish, but as a game designer rather than a programmer I still found algebra and probability indispensible in designing statistical systems for games. The state of the art in game design is getting more technical with every year that passes, making these even more important. On the soft-skill side, any mathematical subject (and I’d include physics there) teaches the kind of organized thinking that is vital for game development. It also gives me at least a chance of understanding what the programmers on my projects are talking about – sometimes it can sound like Martian to me, and good communication between disciplines (design, programming, art) is vital on a big, expensive project like an AAA video game!

English: I took O-levels in Language and Lit. Writing is at the core of what I do, so much so that I now call myself a game writer with design experience rather than a game writer/designer. I despised Lit at the time, arrogantly thinking that I wanted to be a writer, not to obsess over the work of other writers. I was young and foolish, what can I say? I have come to recognize that as with painters, one’s own technique and understanding of the medium is immeasurably enhanced by studying the work of the masters. Story is a huge part of what makes a good game into a great game, and there is a suprising amount of dialogue and narration in most games – I’ve heard 60 hours (that’s 20-30 Hollywood movies’ worth) in a top-line MMORPG like World of Warcraft.

History: I didn’t take History O-level, veering more towards Latin and Classics. I came to history later in life, but quite apart from the work I’ve done on historical games (like the BAFTA-winning Total War strategy game series) it’s been tremendously important for doing things like creating fantasy settings for games. Understand how history and mythology work, and you can create fake histories and mythologies that ring true. Tolkien couldn’t have created The Lord of the Rings without his academic background in Anglo-Saxon literature. Oh, and enough Latin stuck with me that I was the go-to guy for fake-Latin Space Marine mottos in Warhammer 40,000 during my four years at Games Workshop.

Modern Languages:
I took French and German. They’ve come in handy on trips, such as the handful of visits I made to Paris for a project with Ubisoft. And as with history and mythology, an understanding of how languages work helps you construct fake ones for a fantasy game. For example, when I was writing for Warhammer Fantasy products, I twisted Welsh and Gaelic words for the Elven languages, while the Dwarf tongue was based on slightly mangled words from Scandinavian languages.

Geography: I took O-level and A-level, plus O-level Geology. Like history, they have come in useful in creating fantasy worlds. Knowing how landforms, climates, and so on all work helps create a more convincing world.

Biology: Once again, knowing about basic processes, anatomy, and ecology in this world helps create others that ring true.

At the time, very few of the subjects I was taking at school seemed like they would ever be useful to me. It’s surprising how wrong I was.

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  1. Alan Green
    July 28, 2011 at 9:24 am

    Well, I took my O and A levels a bit before you, yet our maths course definitely included some computer science, and I wrote my first program (in Algol) in 1969. The school was one of the first in the country to have an online teletype terminal to a mainframe computer. That led to Algol-68 and ICL’s New Range (still only a design) at University, and then S3 (no, few people have ever heard of that computer language) and 2980s at ICL.

    I don’t think I made use of anything else I learnt at school. Maybe some physics and a little chemistry.

    Indeed, the way English and History were taught put me right off those subjects; whereas now History at least is one of my major interests.

  2. July 28, 2011 at 9:28 am

    Must have been a very progressive school. Our teachers wore robes, liked to be called masters, and were dedicated to preparing young men for the challenging new world of the 1870s.

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