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By harnessing the power, rules and popularity of games we can create innovative solutions to human problems

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Playing the long game

Jan Storgards

Jan Storgards standing next to a sign that says 'Anglia Rusking, celebrating 25 years', with his thumb up.I’m originally from Finland, where I did my undergrad degree in Information Systems and Computer Science. This was back in the early nineties when people still looked at computing courses a little suspiciously. To be fair the reason I wanted to study this course was that I was a gamer: I was already making games, playing games and taking apart home computers. Now I wanted to understand this new world of software technologies more deeply than anybody else.

Nonetheless, as the cliché goes I spent my first year at university playing games with friends and it was glorious. But as time went on we wanted more and suddenly there it was, the biggest technological revolution ever; the internet. Even as a student, I became part of that boom, teaching computer science to other students and running hackathons, where we pulled apart games to make new ones in a single weekend, I began to realise what this burgeoning new industry could really be.

I began my own sports software start-up, pioneering the early stages of wearable tech. It was such early days that there wasn’t even the word 'wearable'! It was going well, but at that point in 2000 the games industry had gone from burgeoning to booming, and I wanted back in. I went back to academia and began a PhD in games. Things had come full circle from being a 16-year-old sat gaming in front of the TV, which is pretty cool when you think about it.

After finishing my PhD and working with hundreds of technology and games start-ups, and international agencies, a curious opportunity arose as research sector lead in digital and creative industries at ARU. It wasn’t something I could let pass by. Now I’ve been here about a year and the University’s potential is incredible. The Cambridge campus is this amazing hub of talent, infrastructure and open ideas that keeps generating exciting projects, one after the other, and not just in computer games.

By harnessing the power, rules and popularity of games we can create innovative solutions to human problems. This kind of a ‘gamification’ is a powerful tool. For instance, when applied to the mantra of ‘eat five vegetables a day’ or ‘do more exercise’ you can use game mechanics, whether in apps or on wearable tech, to make following those mantras fun, to increase motivation and help people to actually reach their goals. This is just one of the research projects that our department is currently working on.

The greatest thing here is how cross-disciplinary ARU can be for students. Young people on arts, business and tech courses come together to make real, tangible things. They learn about team-work and each other's part in the process of making novel things which sets them up so much better for their future careers, rather than only being specialists in one specific area. After all, to be successful in making a game you need talent in lots of different niche areas. So why not start that practice of collaborative working at university rather than waiting until you're in the industry? It also means that you get to actually make some cool stuff, rather than just theorise it.

One of the most exciting initiatives we have at ARU is REACTOR, a program centre focussed on gamification: the art of applying games technologies into other sectors such as healthcare, education and smart cities. It brings students and researchers together with SMEs to build research partnerships and is another reason that students here graduate industry-ready. In fact, with all the cross-discipline collaboration, some even leave with fully formed small games companies – ready to start making from day one. Honestly, I’m just waiting for the next Angry Birds or Clash of Clans to come out of here. It’s not a coincidence that ARU wins awards for its entrepreneurial spirit.*

There will probably always be a bit of a stigma about studying computer games. Some people might think it’s easy to just play games and get a degree. But the fact is that gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry. Researching, studying and understanding gaming is much more than a hobby or just having fun. You come here to craft and build, and there aren’t many better places to do that than ARU.

*2014 Entrepreneurial University of the Year, Times Higher Education Awards

*2016 Duke of York Award for University Entrepreneurship