Last week EA ran a Boom Blox masterclass as part of something called Shine Week - a seven day festival to celebrate creative talent among young people. I was invited along to a large room in Pall Mall, where a small army of hyperactive kids was busily laying into Bash Party's level creator. The idea was to encourage the bairns to think about games development as a future career choice. There was even a direct show of support from the Government in the form of Siôn Simon, creative industries minister at the Department for Culture Media and Sport.
Some people find it easy to be cynical about this sort of thing. True, most of the kids I saw seemed more concerned with having fun than with weighing up their career options, and I suspect that they were less impressed with Mr Simon than they were with Master Shortie, a grime artist who also popped along to say hello. All the same, there was something rather inspiring about the enthusiasm and energy in the room.
Taking a quick tour of the hall, it was quickly apparent that some of the would-be developers were a lot better than others. Some just seemed content to make a random mess of blocks, others were more concerned with the pleasures of blowing stuff up, but here and there you could see pairs of kids who really wanted to make their levels work. There's a certain kind of concentration you only see in children when they become totally absorbed with creating something. It's something that teachers often struggle to summon within the classroom, but here there were most certainly pockets of it dotted around the Wii booths. And while there were plenty of adults around to lend a helping hand, the most engaged kids were clearly keen to find their own paths - tweaking their designs and testing stuff out to see how the various blocks and bonuses worked.
Will any of those whippersnappers grow up to be leading game developers? It's doubtful, but who knows. What was clear to me was this kind of activity can only be a good thing. I'm all for anything that helps children to be creative: even if none of those pupils grow up to be the next Peter Molyneux, this kind of exercise can help people to discover talents they might not know they have. But the Shine event also got me thinking about whether we could be doing more to get "da yoof" into video games design.
Bedroom programming played a vital role back in the early days of our pastime. Matthew Smith was still a teenager when he created Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy for the ZX Spectrum. Those names may mean nothing to many of you reading this, but in the 80s they were massive titles that helped to forge the platform genre. Today I guess we have rough equivalents in the people who use Flash and other software tools to make their own web games, but the main bulk of the games industry has outgrown these indie roots. It's a massive entity, and as a result I'm not sure that people really know how to get into it.
My point is this. Games like Boom Blox and LittleBigPlanet have an important role to play in allowing people to express their creativity, but on their own they're not enough to spark a major surge of fresh blood into the sector. The Government are clearly on a major push to promote the UK's creative industries, but if they really want to get young people into games development, I think a change of approach is required.
Firstly, it's vital that the games industry is perceived as a viable one to work for - both in terms of employment prospects, and in terms of cultural worth. I studied film for three years at a well-respected university, and during that time I received plenty of stick for being on a "Mickey Mouse" course. But that was nothing compared to the derision that met the announcement that London South Bank University was to launch a BA degree in Games Culture. People thought it was a joke, but why should it be? Revenues from games have now eclipsed the film industry, but money isn't the only issue. Video games have to be fully accepted as a viable cultural form by the rest of society, and while we're closer to this situation than ever before, there's still some way to go.
Why not allow people to study game design for their AS levels, or perhaps even their GCSEs? Such a move would no doubt be met with a bit of opposition from advocates of traditional education, but eventually the new courses would become accepted as a viable study option. At the same time, such studies would also encourage students to brush up their skills in other relevant areas like maths and physics. Something like this might help the Government to win over the large proportion of gamers who regard them with distrust and/or apathy. After years of enduring hysterical furores over video game violence - and more recently, the Change4Life ad fiasco - we need a bit of love from the powers that be. Still, perhaps there's hope: Siôn Simon tells me he's a big fan of the GTA series...