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Finnish games education is a collaboration of clans

Kajak Games is a student-led cooperative games publisher where students can earn study credits and commercially publish their own games. Evocat is one of its latest game development teams. Kajak Games

Much has been written about the impact of the Finnish games scene worldwide. Now, education is in the mix, with developers, gamers and entrepreneurs getting schooled in all aspects of the industry.

Education expertise and tech are both areas where Finland shines on a global scale, as our recent Five for Friday highlighted. However, educational games are not the only example of a perfect synergy between the two sectors: they also find harmony via a series of Finnish university schemes, with plans to educate a new generation of skilled gaming professionals.

The most northerly of these is found in the city of Oulu. Located 600 km north of Helsinki, this isn’t an addictive mobile game à la Angry Birds or Clash of Clans, but a unique lab concept for higher education built around entrepreneurship and multidisciplinary learning.

“We wanted to create game education that really meets industry needs and produces professionals as ready as possible for work life,” says Anna Salomaa, lab master at the Oulu Game Lab, which is the first of three educational labs developed by Oulu University of Applied Sciences.

The lab acts as a pre-incubator programme and brings together advanced students from various subjects to work in game development teams. Here they build prototypes, products and eventually even form startups for the games industry. A key part of the process is pitching events where the best concepts are chosen to continue, while other teams are asked to merge with them. This is repeated until a selected few games are chosen for production.

“This competition model prepares students for the actual situation in the games industry, because it is a highly competitive market,” Salomaa explains. “You need to learn to deal with that pressure early.”

This philosophy is paying off. In April, Oulu Game Lab won the Innovative Youth Incubator Award, beating out competitors from 25 countries.

Practicality over play

Kajaani University of Applied Sciences (KAMK) shares Oulu Game Lab’s vision and offers Finland’s longest running study programmes on game development and technology.

KAMK, based in eastern Finland, emphasises real-world team projects ahead of theory, works closely with the games industry and international university partners.

But the university’s specialty is Kajak Games, a student-led cooperative for video game publishing with around 650 members. It offers students a simple channel to commercially publish their own games and dip their feet in the industry long before graduation.

In the past three years Finland’s Oulu Game Lab has produced over 300 new gaming professionals, 155 product concepts and demos and helped to start partner labs in Japan, the Netherlands and Romania. Image: Oulu Game Lab

“The school buys the licences and equipment for the co-op and the students gain both study credits and income,” explains Kimmo Nikkanen, head of school, information systems at KAMK. “Typically, game projects in schools around the world are made up, not commercial, but we have taken the commercial-aspect a long way.”

This commercial spirit is echoed at Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. Some 18 months ago, it launched a fully-fledged game studio in Espoo as part of its games education. Students can apply to work in the studio and be part of teams commissioned to develop games for public organisations or help startups in product development.

Juha Huhtakallio, head of studio, believes this is a good way for students to learn customer interaction, work in teams and manage the constant change in the industry.

“In the real world the specs of a game project and the game itself evolve throughout the development process and it is important to experience this early,” he says.

A unique community

One of the trademarks of the Finnish games community is its openness and industry experts help mould future talent by sharing their expertise and time with students across the country.

A textbook example of this is the Game Executive Program, a six-day intensive course for gaming industry professionals organised by Aalto University Developing Entrepreneurship (Aalto ENT) unit, which is based in Helsinki. The programme’s focus on executive-level education makes it a rarity globally and it has been developed in collaboration with the industry to drill down into the leadership and strategic business side of gaming.

“The Finnish gaming community is very strong and really believes in sharing their successes and failures with others, also with international participants,” explains Walid O. El Cheikh, programme director. “For example, we had 20 guest speakers from different companies last year who were really committed to sharing.”

This important role of the Finnish games community is reiterated by Salomaa, Nikkanen and Huhtakallio. They all cite close collaboration with games companies as a vital element in education future professionals.

“The Finnish games industry is hugely successful, but quite small,” says Salomaa. “Everybody knows and helps one another. This makes our operating environment fairly unique and we always get support from companies as they want to help others succeed.”

The Game Executive Program is a six-day intensive course for gaming industry professionals organised by Aalto University Developing Entrepreneurship (Aalto ENT) unit. Image: Game Executive Program/screenshot
By: Eeva Haaramo