Back to school

Last week I went back to school. Well, college – just for a morning. And that was enough.

A fortnight before I was asked if I’d consider being a “guest lecturer” (which I understand to be a nice way of saying “unpaid”) at the college in my home city, for their BTEC Games Development course. One hundred students; bright-eyed and eager, desperate to learn how games are really made. And the faculty decided that getting someone in “from the industry” might lend a bit of extra gravitas to what they were trying to teach.

I assume they realise that the plateful of gravitas they have ordered will come with side dishes of cynicism, foul-language, full-frontal nudity and gratuitous violence. If they don’t, they’re in for a bit of a shock … and more than a few angry letters from parents. But there we are.

They’ve left it up to me to decide on the subject material – which is another stupid error of judgement on their part. I can’t imagine they’re expecting an hour-long lecture about different sorts of crunch-period takeaways, or why working in games-development will shorten your lifespan.

I didn’t feel I knew enough about the course to be able to suggest useful topics, so I asked if I could visit and meet some students, observe what they were making, and so on … just to give me some idea of what they might need.

And so, Wednesday morning found me in a college classroom, selecting terrified students at random and asking difficult, probing questions. Questions like “what are you making?” and “what do you want to do when you finish this course?”. Which to be honest, I didn’t think were particularly difficult or probing … but still managed to panic students to such an extent that they would sweat profusely and stutter to the point of incoherence (and very nearly incontinence).

And that is my enduring memory of that visit – a terrible reminder of what it was like to be sixteen and in college. You’re still in that senior-school I’m-only-here-because-I-have-to-be mindset. Unsure of who you really are. No confidence when talking to anyone new, or making important decisions, and no idea about what you want to do with your life. And totally baffled as to why all the adults around you seem permanently angry.

I spoke to about fifty young people; all still blessed with youth, good looks (spots were in abundance, but when it comes to complexion, grease is better than old leather), a full head of hair and absolutely no idea of the life just beginning. No mortgage or rent, their mum does all the cooking and cleaning and washing, and they’re able to stay out past 10pm and not feel like death in the morning.

This inevitably leads to phrases like “don’t know you’re born” and “just wait until you’re my age” … and then I realise that I’ve turned into my father.

There was a moment in class when I was about … fourteen, I think. I don’t remember what my English teacher was trying to teach us on that day (probably brevity, for all the good it did – Mr Kerry would have a fit if he ever saw this blog) but I remember the tangent as if it were yesterday. He tried to get through to us that the period between about fifteen and eighteen would be the most important of our lives. He was absolutely right too.

In those few years, you struggled to earn some GCSEs, left school, decided what further education you would pursue (if any) which would directly influence your choice of university, what people you would meet and friends you’d make, very possibly meet your future spouse, choose your career path, and therefore how much money you’re likely to make and how you’re going to live for the rest of your life.

Those choices will determine whether your adult life will be spent as an international jet-setter, skilled surgeon, political heavyweight … or alcoholic park-bench dweller. And yet those decisions are trusted to you at an age when you’re in no position to make them!

Which is why, kids, when a grownup says “what are you going to do when you leave college?” and you shrug and say “dunno” and turn on the TV … they get a bit shouty. They’re terrified that – like them – you’ll waste the opportunity.

The visit to the college was useful and I enjoyed it immensely. I’ve taken my scribbled-down thoughts on what I can talk about, and am trying to turn them into something coherent, useful, and dividable into hour-long lectures.

  • The games-industry doesn’t owe you diddly-squat. Don’t expect to get the job you think you deserve.
  • If you can’t get a job in games development, what else could you do?
  • Your parents went mental when you told them what course you signed up for, didn’t they? Here’s why.
  • Have a plan, even if it’s ridiculous. An unrealistic plan is still better than “dunno”.
  • The person who reads your CV will want to see evidence that you can work. Don’t be afraid to get a part-time job. We have no respect for people who have spent their college years at home, leeching off mum and dad.
  • Stop wasting your time trying to get-off with the girl sat next to you. Study now so that you can get to university, where you’ll meet a whole new collection of women who are considerably more interesting and filthy.
  • Unless you’re really passionate about it, you don’t want to be an animator or designer. We have lots of those. You’re going to starve to death. Instead, learn to code. The whole world is desperate for coders.
  • It’s a few years until you’ll be applying for jobs, isn’t it? Here’s why you need to start on your portfolio now, and work on it every night until then.

I hadn’t intended many of those points to sound like Buzzfeed article headings, but they do anyway.

I fear I may seem slightly … ranty. Not quite the illuminating exposition of technical problems, and more the “life-stuff” I wish I had understood at that age. But I’m not really ranting at them … I’m ranting at the sixteen-year-old me. Because at that age I was a clueless halfwit who needed telling.

So I shall try to give advice as gently as I can. And hopefully they’ll try to listen. And maybe they’ll make some good decisions, and maybe they won’t.

But one thing’s for sure: they’ll understand it when they have teenagers of their own.

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posted in Diary, People, Work by Oddbloke

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