5 Minutes with... Ian Livingstone CBE

"Games go way beyond entertainment; games skills are life skills."

Ian Livingstone CBE is widely considered one of the founding fathers of the British games industry. He co-founded Games Workshop, introduced Dungeons & Dragons to Europe, co-authored the multi-million selling Fighting Fantasy books and published the original Tomb Raider video game, created in Derby almost twenty years ago. He also helped convince the Government to put computer science on the National Curriculum.

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At what point did you realise how successful Tomb Raider could be?

We knew even before it was released, such was the buzz of expectation from journalists and public alike. What we didn’t realise was just how big a franchise Tomb Raider would become. Looking back it’s great to see Lara Croft’s enduring appeal; she has survived the test of time.

Do you think games can help young people develop critical skills and stretch their imagination?

Games go way beyond entertainment, games skills are life skills. Think what is happening cognitively when you play games: creativity, problem-solving, community, multi-tasking, intuitive learning, strategic planning, logic, imagination, and so on. The potential to construct and be creative in games like Minecraft is incredible. Who wouldn’t want their children to learn such skills whilst being entertained at the same time? Human beings are playful by nature and, contrary to what some believe, it is possible to learn while having fun!

What lessons have you learned from building up successful brands such as Tomb Raider or Games Workshop?

The main thing I’ve learned is the importance of retaining ownership of your intellectual property in order to build real value in a company. If you own your own content you control your own destiny. The UK excels at creating world-beating Intellectual Property. But whilst UK creative talent might win the BAFTAs and other coveted artistic awards, too often is the case whereby the revenue derived from UK creativity is banked overseas. It is important that intellectual property is retained further down the value chain by its creators. Another lesson is that it’s important not to be afraid of failure - see it as ‘success – work-in-progress’. Learn from your mistakes. Rovio, the company that created Angry Birds, made 50 games before they hit it big.

"Rovio, the company that created Angry Birds, made 50 games before they hit it big."

Is there a skills shortage in the UK’s creative industries? If so, what can we do to address the gap?

Yes. Children born these days will need to learn skills for jobs that don’t exist yet; such is the speed of change in the digital age. They need to become creators of digital technology as well as consumers of it. Computer science is a cross-curricula discipline and should be a seen as a vital part of education. Digital-making skills enable children to make a game not just play a game, or to make an app rather than just use one. It’s that combination of computer programming skills and creativity that led to the birth of world-changing companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter.

The way we’ve taught children about computers has been too narrow in the past and risks creating a generation of digital illiterates. A few years ago I was asked by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey to co-author a report, called Next Gen, to review the skills needed for the creative industries (you can read Next Gen at www.nesta.org.uk). The key message to come out of it was the need to improve the way we teach computing in schools. Companies like Rolls-Royce or GSK depend on great programmers as much as games developers do. Computing is no longer a niche skill for geeks; it is essential knowledge for innovative businesses. The arts and sciences must be brought together – it should no longer be a case of either or. Schools must offer good arts and creative provision as well as STEM subjects.

Michael Gove – although a controversial Education Secretary – should at least be congratulated for scrapping the old ICT curriculum in favour of Computing. It’s especially important today when the UK has to outsource much of its computing needs, while at the same time there is high youth unemployment. This is madness for a country renowned for its creativity and use of high-technology.

"Computing is no longer a niche skill for geeks; it is essential knowledge for innovative businesses."

You’ve previously said the UK’s role is to “keep coming out with great ideas but the problem we have is we are not always able to scale those ideas globally”. How can we address this?

Creativity is a core strength of the UK, which gives us an edge as a country. However, UK entrepreneurs are accused of having a lack of ambition compared to their American counterparts. They are accused of having a ‘cottage industry’ mentality and are happy to sell out early doors. To encourage creative businesses to scale, we must further incentivise, invest in, and reward creative endeavour. We must celebrate our Creative Industries’ success stories, sending out positive messages about career and investment opportunities. When the BAFTA-winning video game Grand Theft Auto V launched in 2013, it generated global revenues in excess of $1 billion in just three days. It remains the biggest entertainment franchise in any medium and is a great British success story. We must also ensure that a skilled talent pool and access to finance is available to IP-creating companies.

Do you think competition is a key driver for creativity?

Creativity in the UK is the bi-product of a long history of culture - and counter-culture challenging the status quo. Modern Britain is an open, multi-cultural society, a rich talent pool where ideas stream from diverse free-thinkers collaborating to create innovative new products and services. International competition certainly helps drive creative endeavour.

More recently, you’ve been working on a project to set up a free school. What inspired you to get into education?

Following the success of Next Gen in helping to get computing on the curriculum, I decided it would be great to have a flagship school with a focus on coding and creativity. To my mind the education system was not meeting the needs of children heading into industry in the fast-changing digital world. There are computers in our classrooms but, for the most part, they are not used effectively. Until last year the National Curriculum required schools to teach not computer science but ICT – a strange hybrid of desktop publishing lessons and Microsoft tutorials. Whilst Word and Excel are never going to equip anybody for a career in video games. Computer science is different. It is a vital, analytical discipline, and a system of logical thinking that is as relevant to the modern world as physics, chemistry or biology. And creativity, the arts and collaboration will be very much form part of the school’s STEAM agenda. So whilst my school will have a broad and balanced curriculum, we will also use computer science, the arts and principals of games-based learning to give students a deeper understanding of each and every topic. We need children with enquiring minds, who are problem-solvers, self-learners, collaborators, creative innovators, digital operators, great communicators, motivated risk-takers who are not afraid of failure and learn from their mistakes.

"Play is learning that failure is success - work in progress."

How important is play in education?

Play is natural. Play is engaging. Play is learning-by-doing. Play is trial and error. Play is failing in a safe environment. Play is learning that failure is success - work in progress. I remember how my interactive Fighting Fantasy gamebooks got a generation of children reading in the 1980’s. Fighting Fantasy empowered the reader. Play is empowering.

Do you think the current curriculum focuses too much on subject knowledge rather than developing skills?

I believe multi-disciplinary project-based learning is far more beneficial (and similar to the workplace) than siloed subjects learned by rote without context. Imagination is the key for the ‘maker’ generation. Imagination helps us dream what might be possible, and maths makes us understand what is possible. Leonardo da Vinci, the most renowned polymath of all time, was not only the world’s greatest-ever painter, but also an architect, inventor, mathematician and engineer.

How can we encourage creativity in education?

An authentic education for the digital world is key, and the curriculum must continue to evolve, bringing the arts and sciences together to encourage innovation. It is essential that school is a place where creativity flourishes. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects are essential, but we must never underestimate the contribution that art, music, drama and design makes in promoting diverse thinking, self-expression and self-determination - the raw materials of the creative industries.

What changes should be made in our schools to ensure young people are equipped with the skills they need for the digital age?

Computational thinking in children is key, but the main way of teaching this would require change in pedagogy. Learning-by-doing is the answer. Problem-solving should rise above rote learning. Know-how should be on a par with knowledge. Skills on a par with qualifications. The arts on a par with science. Collaboration and teamwork should be encouraged as that emulates the workplace. We need diverse thinkers coming together to solve the problems of tomorrow.

At what age do you think children should start learning to code?

As young as possible - it’s like a language. Make them true citizens of the digital world, and give them the opportunity to be job makers not just job seekers. Not everybody is going to become a coder but to be a digital citizen everybody has to understand how code works.

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