I am sitting in a classroom in Salzburg, Austria now as my masters students in Multimedia Technology work on their serious game prototypes. Most are programming away while one student is flying around the room to see what kinds of movements the Kinect can detect.
I was invited here to the University of Applied Sciences in Salzburg, Austria (referred to as the Fachhochschule Salzburg or FHS) for a 3 month gig as a guest professor. What can I say? I love it here. Besides the amazing landscape (the Sound of Music was filmed here), fresh food (grown on the land and not in greenhouses) and people who merit being voted the friendliest in Europe; the university provides a very good environment for training students to become leaders in the field of serious games.
First of all, for those of you not familiar with forms of education in Europe as I was until recently, the FHS is an APPLIED university. Traditional universities focus on pure science and scholarship. Technical universities have a focus on engineering and the natural sciences. Universities of Applied Sciences are more practical and vocational in nature. They are considered to be superior to traditional universities in preparing students for working in industries such as technology, business and management, health and social work, media and design. They collaborate closely with corporations and their professors have to have at least 3 years of professional experience before they can teach there. Research is also conducted at the applied science universities but it naturally tends to be more applied in nature.
Because the FHS combines research with applied knowledge, it is an ideal environment for students to develop skills in making high quality serious games that combine high standards of science with real world applications.
Opportunities for Interdisciplinary Collaboration
Second of all, representatives from the critical areas needed for making serious games for health are located at the FHS. It offers study in multimedia technology, multimedia art, and product management and design. On the health side, they also offer degrees in areas such as nursing, social work, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and biomedical science. To round out the expertise needed to make a serious game successful, courses are also offered in business and management, and information technology. Representatives from each of these areas are very interested in collaborating and getting involved in serious gaming approaches and they have done so with the students in the serious games class that I am teaching here.
An Entrepreneurial Spirit
Finally, and perhaps this is particular to Salzburg, there is a cultural atmosphere that supports innovation and simply making things happen. First of all, the culture in Salzburg has an appreciation for excellence. This is not surprising because, after all, this is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I noticed this aspect of the culture when Prof. Hilmar Linder, the head of the Department of Multimedia Technology, told me that he would like to see excellent work from my students. That was very nice to hear because in most traditional cultures in Europe, standing out is not a cultural value.
I have also seen people here going to great extents to make excellent things happen. Marie-Luise Seisenbacher, a professional staff member in teaching and physiology research, rounded up her colleagues including the head of the Department of Physiotherapy and convinced them to come to my class on a Saturday afternoon on their own time to hear about the physiotherapy exergames that my students want to make. Within a week of this meeting my students met with a group of physical therapy students who were interested in the prospects of helping patients do their physical therapy in a game format. The physiotherapy students have been collaborating with my students on the projects since then and doing it without pay or course credit at the moment, but they are hoping they can work on the project for their honors thesis in the coming year.
My students themselves also make things happen as budding entrepreneurs. Artists were supposed to be a part of my class but none of them signed up because it did not appear on their curriculum. Gerhard Blechinger, the head of the Department of Multimedia Art, talked with students and professors and urged them to come and get involved in our project. Josef Schinwald, a professor who teaches game design, brought his whole game design class to our class to listen to what we wanted to do and encouraged them to join our class. Their support combined with a very active effort on the part of my students approaching artists on their own resulted in impressive numbers of art students joining my student’s project teams to make their serious game prototypes come to life. Again these art students are joining on their own time but hopefully these prototypes will be an impressive addition to their portfolio that will impress future employers.
At the beginning of the course, I specifically told my students that taking initiative and being entrepreneurial were part of their final grade. My students clearly merit the highest grade of 1, “sehr gut” for their entrepreneurial spirit and actions in taking advantage of the resources offered at the FHS.
We still have to see how all of this motivation holds up. We are in the final stretch to our last workshop on June 29, 2012 when my students will present their prototypes to a jury who will select the best representative of a serious game for physical therapy. I have great faith that their work will not disappoint.
In my very short experiences so far at the University of Applied Sciences Salzburg I have to say that I have been really impressed with the resources, infrastructure and working culture here. Together they make it easier for me to provide students with a “hands-on” learning experience in the complex interdisciplinary process of making serious games. Much to my delight, the school also gives me the opportunity to shape these students into makers of great serious games who don’t have to suffer the pains of trial and error that us dinosaurs had to go through back in the early days of making serious games. Finally, I think it would make a lot of sense for people to look into Universities of Applied Sciences as places of learning where research can meet practice in a supportive interdisciplinary atmosphere.
Attention Readers in the United States!
As a final note to my readers in the United States who are struggling with the high costs of higher education, I would recommend considering the University of Applied Sciences Salzburg and also the higher education system in Europe. Even though the costs of tuition in Europe are rising, the system offers high quality education at a ridiculously low cost compared to the United States.