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Jobs of the Future: Creativity meets technical proficiency in game design

Cambrian College training future designers for work in billion-dollar industry

Some of Joshua Vaters’ fondest childhood memories are of playing videogames at home in Sudbury with his grandmother.

The digital pastime had always been part of his life growing up, and when it came time to decide on a future career, he had game design in his sights.

“I've always wanted to take game design, right out of the gate,” Vaters said.

“Videogames have always made me really happy, so I've always wanted to make games to make other people feel the same way.”

But by the time he was ready to attend college, the only program available was offered through a school in Toronto.

With a young daughter to care for, it just wasn't feasible to enroll in a program four hours away, upending his family so he could follow his dream, Vaters said. Instead, he went to work.

Vaters trained as a professional rubber liner and conveyor belt technician, developing a niche set of skills over the last decade that put him in demand at mining sites and aggregate pits across the city.

But everything changed last summer when he got an email from Cambrian College announcing its brand-new game design program.

He instantly saw it as a chance to recapture the opportunity that had slipped by him so many years before.

“I was, like, ‘This is it; this is the time. I can't live my life (thinking) ‘What if?’ So I gotta try it.'" 

Vaters is now one of the inaugural cohort of the college's game design program, which kicked off in September 2021.

Throughout the four-semester course, students learn about game design theory, the creation, application and production of games, and the use of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).

Thirty-five students signed up for its first intake, a robust response to a new course, said program coordinator Aaron Langille, an experienced computer programmer and lifelong videogame lover.

Many students are attracted to the program because it's just plain fun, he noted.

But in an industry that, in 2021, generated an estimated $4.3 billion in Canada, videogame design is also sparking attention for the vast possibilities it presents.

“I don't have to work hard to sell people on the idea of game design,” Langille said.

“It's something that is starting to come so natural to people, because there's been such a shift in not only the size of the game industry, but also in the perception of games as an actual valid thing to be doing."

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Though many students may dream of designing their own Minecraft or Call of Duty, the game design principles they learn in the program can easily be applied elsewhere, Langille said. That includes the videogame's non-digital predecessor: board games.

Gamification — inserting game-like aspects into other applications — is a big trend in the corporate world right now, with many companies employing game tactics to make information or services more attractive to users.

“How do we engage people? How do we keep their interest? How do we tell interesting stories about things that might not be inherently interesting?” Langille said.

“All of those skills, we try to do our best in the game design courses to say, you can also use it in these instances as well.”

One example might be a company incentive program that encourages employees to meet their productivity quotas, he noted. Another is education; if an organization turns learning new information into a game, it instantly becomes more exciting and appealing.

Colleges, industry, and other employers are also using VR and AR in their training modules to provide learners with a simulation of scenarios they may encounter in their work.

For example, a common core student could put on goggles and be immersed in a VR tour of an operating mine before ever setting foot underground.

All that advanced technology requires someone to design, build, and implement it.

"Game sits at the intersection of so many media types, and so many creativity-based endeavours, and so many technical endeavours, that it's impossible not to be learning transferable skills while you're learning game design,” Langille said.

"So, I'd like to think that we're opening a world of doors for our students. Even if they're only thinking game design, there are so many places that they could go after they're done."

Sudbury is already home to a small, fledgling community of designers who work in the industry, and Langille predicts it will grow further in the coming years.

As punctuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, geographical location is no longer a barrier to work in many industries, game design included.

He believes it's very feasible for designers in Sudbury, or elsewhere in Northern Ontario, to be collaborating with counterparts in locations around the globe.

“I think Northern Ontario’s ready, and I think it’ll be great to start seeing students come in from all over the place to be part of this,” Langille said.

“There's no reason that we can't be a hub of interest for people that are in Toronto that want to connect with us, too. We have ideas that are just as good as anybody else's; there's no question. I see it from my students and I see it from the people that I meet.”

Joshua Vaters still has another year to go before he'll be ready to enter the industry, but the course so far has been eye-opening.

Though he'd been an aficionado in playing videogames, he hadn't done much programming, and he said it's been a welcome challenge to balance the creative and coding aspects of the work.

This past summer, he got first-hand experience in both after landing a coveted job with NORCAT, working with the innovation centre's tech team on various projects, including the design of a VR program aimed at training new electricians on fire safety.

After graduation, he hopes to find work with a local company where he can continue to hone his skills in the industry that's held a lifelong fascination.

Asked if it’s been worth it to make such a big change in his life, there's no hesitation.

“Oh, definitely,” Vaters said. “I'm so much happier, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. It's really good.”