When the employment situation is bleak, thousands of students gravitate towards subjects like business, communications, or economics, turning their backs on liberal arts subjects. Many do so because they perceive it to be the safest way to avoid unemployment at graduation. Few have made the case to students that the pursuit of a broad academic education may be a more effective strategy to achieve the desired result. So it was with great interest that I read a discussion of this topic on my alma mater’s LinkedIn site (Durham University Alumni). The specific question asked was how graduates used subjects like history, science or languages in their day-to-day work.
I found one answer particularly helpful, because it clearly articulated how the author’s knowledge of multiple subjects influenced his success in writing and designing video games. Graeme Davis moved into the games industry after graduating with a degree in archeology. This is an edited version of Graeme’s account, describing how he has used his educational background:
Math: Math 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: 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 English literature when I was in high school, 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 surprising 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 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 studied 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: Like history, geography has 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.
Archeology: Fantasy worlds tend to be at a medieval level of technology, often with iron-age or dark-age barbarians nibbling at their frontiers. I’ve also written historical sourcebooks (Vikings, iron-age Celts, Rome, medieval England, and most recently the Thirteen Colonies up to the Revolutionary War) for Dungeons & Dragons and similar games.”
Most students have a very narrow frame of reference when it comes to careers. And, their parents often reinforce the myth that your major dictates how you will ultimately earn your living. Too often, relatives who hear that a student is majoring in history, philosophy or English will ask “what are you going to do with that”, reinforcing the idea that a liberal arts degree is a fast path to unemployment. What students need to hear are stories of graduates, like Graeme Davis, whose education, inside and outside the classroom, has enabled him to follow his passion. The examples of these graduates will inspire students to make informed educational decisions, rather than following the crowd. And faculty may find a few more students in their archeology classes.