The video games industry: an over-looked Incubator for Australia’s future STEM talent

One of the things we need to contend with as game developers is the idea among those outside the industry that what we produce is nothing more than frivolous entertainment. This is quite clearly the implication of the Federal Government policy towards the games industry, where we’re not provided support nor funding on any level, and indeed, we are the only art form not to be supported by government.

And yet it’s simply not true. Even if you discount the cultural and artistic value of what game developers create, so many of us have much broader roles in the community, because when it comes to audio-visual experiences, game developers have a greater level of expertise than any, and this means we’re in demand far beyond the entertainment that we provide.

Take for example Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). It is the games industry that has really driven the interest in VR, but as the technology becomes more established, there’s so much more to VR than games. Real Estate agents are having VR walk throughs of homes developed so people can attend a property inspection without needing to be physically at the home, and who has a better idea how to build virtual spaces in three dimensions than game developers? The first attempt to send humans to Mars will be far safer than the attempts to get humans to the moon because, before the trip has started, the astronauts will have completed many hours in highly-detailed simulations.

At Big Ant we have created an immersive, 360-degree, 3D dome-based mining simulation for a resources organisation, and a live-actor taser training simulation pilot with a police force. Elsewhere, gamification elements allow schools to make use of the talents of game developers to create more informative and engaging content for the classroom.

Game developers also find that their skills transfer over into other fields readily. For example, the extreme STEM skills that are required of a game developer are easy to apply to enterprise software, and a number of highly skilled individuals start out in game development before moving on to contribute to leading producers here and abroad.

Using Games To Create The Jobs Of The Future

Critically, at a time where Australia is concerned with its lack of STEM skills in the economy (and as recent reports have stated; Australia has a STEM ‘decay curve’ where kids are not taking up science and maths), games can be the opportunity to catch the attention of the children in the first instance. The most recent data that we have (from 2014) shows that just 18 per cent of Australian graduates are in STEM-related fields. By comparison, in Singapore it’s 34.75 per cent, and in China it’s 46.9 per cent.

The relatively few number of STEM-based graduates has a number of impacts on Australia’s economy. Firstly; it means that we’re simply not able to be as innovative as we should be. We have fewer people to recruit into startups, and it’s more expensive to hire good people in a constrained market.

Secondly, it means that there are giant gaps in skills, which can’t be filled with the local community of professionals. In the past we would turn to the 457 Visa to bring those skills in from overseas, but the uncertainty around government policy towards 457s makes that difficult, too.

Finally, it means we actually lose people overseas. The most ambitious and creative STEM-skilled individuals will travel overseas to where the opportunities are to do really big things.

Kids like video games, and like the idea of making them. Encouraging kids and/or university students to learn about game development is an excellent way to get them comfortable with STEM skills, and when they are then ready for the workforce, they’ll be able to choose from a variety of different career paths.

A healthy, active games industry is also an incubator for talent and business opportunities that Australia will need as it transitions to a high skill, technology-based economy. Without games, innovation simply gets harder.

About the author

Ross Symons is the CEO and founder of Big Ant, a Melbourne-based video game development studio. He recently spoke to Dynamic Business about the secret to his company’s longevity and the key challenges it faces including time-poor customers, political ‘hostility’ and the brain drain of talented developers. See: Big Ant’s CEO on surviving through the GFC to succeed alongside global video game giants