Last year I was invited by dr. Tomi Pasanen of Helsinki University to teach a one-week course on Artificial Intelligence for Computer Games to his third and fourth-year students. I went to the university three weeks ago, and met with 50 computer science students, whom I taught for a week on decision making, learning, and designing of video game characters. Every morning I lectured for two hours, and every afternoon and early evening the students did practical exercises.
Actually, the whole week consisted of one big practical exercise: the students had to design team AI for a team of seven characters in a role-playing game. The goal of the team was to occupy several important spaces in a virtual environment, which would generate points for the team as long as they would be able to hold them. Naturally, the team would have to fend off other teams with AI designed by their fellow students.
On the last day of the course we held a competition, in which we tried to determine the best team AI. Twenty-two teams were entered, and I saw some really impressive results. Some students had concentrated on team AI, some on individual character AI, and a few had even incorporated some opponent modelling. All in all, the strongest teams were those who had focussed a lot of their efforts on individual AI, which they could do because they were familiar with the game being used. However, the top teams needed more than just individual character AI, they had to incorporate strong team AI too.
What struck me was that I had 50 students who were willing to spend the last week of their holidays to enter a very intensive and sometimes quite tough course. Moreover, almost all students really spent the whole day working on the course and the practical. One of the reasons they were willing to do so was, probably, the subject matter of the course. Moreover, the competition element drove them to deliver their best performance.
Naturally, for a course on Artificial Intelligence in Games using games in a practical is the most logical choice. However, I think that games are also an excellent medium to use in many other courses. Take programming, for instance. Usually in programming courses students have to develop quite boring programs such as simple banking systems or personnel administrations. Why not let them develop a game? Any programming concept that exists can be found in games. But you can also think of ‘higher-level’ subjects, such as designing information systems, or human-computer interfacing, or artificial intelligence. Games can be easily used as the subject matter for those courses, too.
I know that students are already pampered quite a bit nowadays, so should we really pamper them even more by letting them work on fun stuff? I say the goal of all that pampering is to motivate them to work, and games are motivating. I saw this in Helsinki, but I have also seen it in other courses: if you give the students a game to work on, not much more stimulation is needed to get them to give their best.
There are colleges and universities who offer programs wherein students are educated to become game developers. Such programs attract students who dream to become game developers later in life. Unfortunately, there are not that many game developers needed, and what I have seen in the game industry is that they usually want to hire computer scientists, and not so much game developers.
Of course, the good game development schools make sure that their students are also able to become something different than a game developer. Such schools use games as a medium, not as a goal. Personally, I think that can be quite a smart move. It may lead to motivated students, who have a fun time and still learn a lot.
Later in life these students will discover that learning can be fun by itself. However, when learning has to compete with going out, drinking beer, and staying up late, teachers should go the extra mile to make the learning as entertaining as possible. And as long as the contents are covered, who cares what the medium is?