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.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.