Courses like "Tolkien in Online Gaming" are swindling desperate students

To be fair - this course is probably really fun if you like MMORPGs.

Science fiction is a great vehicle for satire, since it lets writers isolate the embryonic madnesses of the present and cultivate them, through the medium of elapsed theoretical decades, into true absurdity.

In 2011, visual effects artist Freddie Wong created a YouTube comedy series called Video Game High School: a pastiche of countless American coming-of-age stories set in a near future where students go to school to study the theory and practice of video games.

Its protagonists are flunked for not spending enough time gaming, and compete not for places on the school football team, but for a chance to make the school First Person Shooter squad. VGHS’ jocks are just different nerds, in a world that values skill in games with the same ferocity as our own values academic and sporting talent.

These reversals make for lots of fun tropic subversion, but also nod heavily to societal reality. The show presents an end-state to the growing cultural acceptance of games as a hobby for well-adjusted adults, a growing industry, and a credible art form.

It’s far from complete fantasy. Competitive pro-gaming, televised and flooded with sponsorship money, has been commonplace in Korea for years and is an inevitability in Western markets.  The games industry represents a respectable and rapidly growing slice of the global economy. Barely a week goes by without a media debate on the case for games as art, and magazines embed journalists in online wars.

And now, students can enrol on online courses to study Tolkien as applied to online gaming. Here is a course where students meet their tutor online in a polygonal Shire, and spend seven weeks "discovering the culture heritage of online games" to achieve a certificate of completion.

For a start, I’m not going to bash Coursera, the educational technology company on whose platform the course appears, for this. Giving free online access to education is a phenomenally good idea for the world, and initiatives like Coursera run a staggering number of useful courses. This is just not one of them.

I’m also not going to splutter derision at this from some imagined cultural height. It would be very easy to plough into a generic howl about the dumbing-down of academia, "mickey mouse" courses and grade inflation, of the kind some pundits use to soothe their own fear and incomprehension of a changing world.

But people should be able to study what they like, and - to be fair - this course is probably really fun if you like MMORPGs.

A friend of mine who works in the field of Terrifyingly Advanced Mathematics takes Coursera courses for fun. Some are about astrophysics, but others are about the history of rock - a course he told me is "probably no sillier than the online gaming one".

But, crucially, he already has an Oxford maths Phd. He isn’t studying Chuck Berry and The Monkees in the hopes of getting a job out of it.  

Every year, hordes of young people leave school with a meagre set of grades, facing the prospect of a "no room in the inn" labour market that is especially brutal at entry level. They are desperate for higher education - for anything that will give them an edge in earning a living - and are willing to do an awful lot, even take on staggering debts, to get it.

On the half-sunk ship of the austerity job market, courses like "Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative" are offering them no more than a comedy foam hammer to use in the bloody struggle for the lifeboats.

But if the course is free, you may argue, what’s the problem? Surely sensible people can do this sort of thing for a laugh while earning their real qualifications?

In answer to this thought, it’s worth remembering it’s not only money people invest in their education - it’s hope.

The introduction to the online gaming course entices prospective students with the following blurb: "The twenty-first century gaming industry has become a creative and economic powerhouse.  It engages the talents of some of our brightest writers, artists, composers, computer engineers, game theorists, video producers, and marketing professionals, and in 2012, it generated an estimated $64bn in revenue."

This language drips with the implicit promise of work and a slice of economic pie. For a desperate young person in the early hours of the morning, staring at a grim set of exam results and facing the prospect of taking on a huge financial burden to get into university, it might just be seductive enough to spark the delusion that a job in the games industry is only seven short weeks away. It’s a cruel prospect.

There are questions Video Games High School never had to answer, because it was a comedy show: what kind of economy could support massive educational establishments devoted only to gaming, and what schools would train the rest of the vast workforce required to keep it going? What happens to the VGHS graduates that don’t make a professional games team?

While we may well be moving into a future where pro-gaming is big money TV sport, where culture pundits discuss stories told through the medium of XBOX, and where games coding is as large and respected a profession as mechanical engineering, it is - sadly - a much greater leap to a world where anyone can get a job just by doing what they enjoy.

Would you like to meet your tutor online in a "polygonal Shire"? Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR