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7 August 2017

“Generation Z naturally collaborate”: games legend Ian Livingstone on opening a school

The former Games Workshop and Eidos boss on turning a hobby into a career, and why he is starting an academy.

By Emad Ahmed

There are not many who have had as much influence on gaming in the last four decades as Ian Livingstone. As a writer and designer of games, both digital and physical, he has played a key role in the development of geek culture – a phenomenon that has increasingly infiltrated the mainstream.

It’s a success story that seemed improbable when Livingstone was starting out in the mid-Seventies, living in a van behind an estate agent with Steve Jackson, with whom he co-founded table-top gaming company Games Workshop.

“It didn’t seem like hardship at the time… We parked the van outside the squash court, so we’d go to the court in the morning but really, we were going for a shave and a shower,” he says. “And then we’d work in the little office until 1am. And when it was winter, it was probably horrible but we were enjoying it. We were living the dream.”

The lifestyle was the result of starting a business selling wooden board games while storing stock in his then-girlfriend’s flat. However, the following year in 1976, Games Workshop secured the European rights to distribute Dungeons & Dragons after striking a deal in the States. That, coupled with Livingstone authoring his first interactive book in 1982, changed everything.

“I was very lucky to turn my hobby into a career,” he says, though he was self-conscious at the time as to how this looked to friends and family. “Oh, yes. We were seen as total freaks. Playing a game, a role-playing game, playing a board game, with a book of rules!”

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He’s proudly holding a copy of his latest work, The Port of Peril, launching this month. In total, he’s now written 15 books in the Fighting Fantasy series, selling more than 20 million copies worldwide. The numbers are a testament to his success in opening up role-playing fantasy worlds for anyone and everyone.

“I wanted to take elements of role-play, strip away the complexity, the time requirements, and give people more choices. That empowerment was way beyond what we thought could ever happen.”

This, Livingstone declares, is his favourite part of the many roles he’s had over the years. “I see myself as a games entrepreneur involved in content creation, regardless of format.” He’s referring to his success not just as an author but also a designer.

After starting the juggernaut of Games Workshop he transitioned to computer games by working for publisher Domark, which was eventually acquired by Eidos in the mid-Nineties. Livingstone became both president and CEO, overseeing the birth of some of gaming’s most popular franchises, such as Tomb Raider, Hitman and Deus Ex, which live on today.

Eidos was subsequently acquired by Square Enix, the developer behind the Final Fantasy series. Livingstone remains an industry heavyweight, chairing eight different companies.

But his endless resume has expanded in recent years. He sits on numerous industry advisory boards and has turned his passion for games into those of an educationalist. “I couldn’t get through that sausage factory mentality of learning by rote,” he explains. “I felt a little apart from the way I was being taught.”

This is evidenced by a single A-level grade E, obtained in geography, and even that was after “scraping” into sixth form.

This led to him authoring a government advisory paper on changes to the ICT curriculum, and he now plans to use the principle of what makes games appealing as the foundation for opening an academy in east London in 2019. “I think that resonates with generation Z today who naturally collaborate, who naturally share and they’re naturally curious. They learn by doing. And yet in schools, they’re still required to learn facts and tested against their memory.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise education has become the next level for him to conquer. With the breakneck pace in technological change, the classroom remains as antiquated as ever. Although this is slowly beginning to change – not just with new ideas, but research that shows children’s learning can be increasingly brought forward into the 21st century, with positive results.

I point out Sugata Mitra of Newcastle University’s success with his “school in the cloud” initiative. The project places a single computer among a few children and emphasises the need to work collectively and think critically to solve problems. Livingstone is an enthusiastic supporter of the approach.

“Peer-to-peer learning does increase learning significantly,” he says. “They’re talking the same language, they’re feeding off each other. It’s how we work in the workplace, by collaborating, yet in schools we’re in silos. Education should reflect the world around us, and we wonder why children are fidgeting and bored in class.”

Time will tell as to whether this third act in Livingstone’s career will be successful, as many professional educators are also scrambling to update the learning environment. Today’s children will be living in a much more automated world when they leave school, thanks to robots and artificial intelligence.

But Livingstone remains a staunch optimist. He picks up his book: “Even these were hated at the time by the establishment, but they increased literacy. I remember someone at the time saying ‘my child all of a sudden wanted to know what a sarcophagus was’.” He laughs and continues: “But learning by doing is much more resonant than just remembering stuff.”

Livingstone brought “geek culture” into everyday life, inspiring thousands, if not millions, to do creative things – whether that be building imaginary dungeons or cosplaying as their favourite characters. If he can use that experience to create a learning environment half as enthralling, his new academy could be another example of his turning something viewed as an unlikely hobby into a roaring success.