From the first computer game to the world's largest online fantasy gaming experience - Cambridge has been home to some of gaming's greatest minds.

Cambridge is thought to have 18 per cent of the games market and depending on who you talk to, it employs anything between 1,200 and 4,000 people.

Adrian Page-Mitchell of the Centre for Computing History.

In the field of computing, the University of Cambridge is scarcely short of global firsts. For example, its Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) of 1949 is considered the earliest practical general-purpose electronic computer; and in 1953, the Cambridge Diploma in Computer Science became the world’s first taught course in computing.

Between those two landmarks sits a lesser-known landmark. In 1952, PhD student Alexander S Douglas developed the world’s first computer video game – a noughts and crosses emulator that he titled ‘OXO’. The program ran on the EDSAC, which occupied more than 200 square feet of the Mathematical Laboratory. Competing against an artificially intelligent opponent, players would input their moves on a telephone dial, and follow the action on a flickering cathode-ray tube.

More than 60 years on video games are big business in the UK. According to industry body TIGA, the games development sector contributes around £1bn to Britain’s Gross Domestic Product each year, employing 9,000 skilled workers of whom 80 per cent are graduates. What’s more, Cambridge is at the very heart of the industry, home to a cluster of companies including Jagex, Frontier Developments, Geomerics, Guerrilla Cambridge, Ninja Theory and many more

“Cambridge is thought to have 18 per cent of the games market,” says Adrian Page-Mitchell of the Centre for Computing History. “And depending on who you talk to, it employs anything between 1,200 and 4,000 people.”

A trip to the centre, located off Newmarket Road, offers a crash course in how the city became a magnet for games talent. The museum’s most popular displays are almost certainly the 8-bit machines designed by Cambridge companies in the computing boom of the early 1980s, and particularly the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Acorn BBC Micro.

Today, the presence of technology giants such as Microsoft Research, Broadcom and ARM (a descendant of Acorn) makes Cambridge a particularly favourable location for software development, including games. This dates back to the 80s heyday of Sinclair and Acorn, says Page-Mitchell. “They were hardware people, and always on the lookout for software talent. So feelers went out to undergraduates, and you had these bedroom coders – of which the biggest ones were David Braben and Ian Bell, who wrote Elite.”

On its release in 1984, Elite was a startling piece of software: a space trading and combat game with revolutionary 3D graphics, open-ended gameplay and a vast universe. Co-writer David Braben has remained in Cambridge, where his company Frontier Developments is producing a 21st century reboot of the game, Elite: Dangerous, after raising a record £1.25m on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

Braben cites the close relationship between the University and the ‘Silicon Fen’ tech hub as a great advantage for games developers. It’s strengthened by organisations such as games Eden and Creative Front, which organise events such as the annual Brains Eden gaming festival. “It all helps to cement the relationship between the town and the University in a very positive way, and give people opportunities to stay in Cambridge and work for Cambridge-based companies,” he says.

One thing that the University lacks is any courses specifically geared to computer games, unlike institutions such as Anglia Ruskin University, which runs a popular BSc in Computer Gaming Technology. However, Braben believes that a more generalist approach is best at undergraduate level: “you can pick up the vocational side very quickly. I’m not criticising any of the more specific courses, which teach some important things like team working, but I think it’s much more important to get a proper grounding [in computer science].”

It’s a view shared at Jagex, the UK’s largest independent game developer. Co-founded by Cambridge Computer Science graduate Paul Gower in 2001, the current company is headquartered at St John’s Innovation Centre and is best known for Runescape – the world’s largest free MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game). Jagex is a regular recruiter from the University, both at graduate and doctoral level. Chief executive officer Mark Gerhard says: “We value IQ and attitude over experience. A smart, ambitious, hungry graduate is best for us, as opposed to someone who has been in the industry for 20 years and either has a lot of bad habits or doesn’t want to learn anything new. But we’re competing for talent not just with Google and Microsoft but with Goldman Sachs.”

Yet despite the lure of chunky salaries in the City, the University’s brightest students are still drawn to gaming.

Among this year’s Part 1B projects for undergraduates on the Computer Science Tripos are several within the sector. They include “Evolve a Pet”, which will create a game to teach school pupils about genomic sequencing, and a transport game project to enable users to explore the impact of their journeys around Cambridge.

Comp-sci students are also targeting firms concerned with gaming technology for their internships and work placements. Second-year student Sakunthala Panditharatne of Churchill College is looking forward to working with Oculus VR, developers of the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, who were recently acquired by Facebook for around £1.2bn. Already the winner of a Google technology prize at the age of 16 for her work in computer animation, she will be writing software to make the headset compatible with games.

Panditharatne plans to remain in the sector. “I think what I’ll end up doing in the next couple of years will be related to the 3D models that go into video games,” she says. “I want an opportunity to be using my computer science skills – I don’t want my degree just to be a ticket to something else.”

It’s not just a matter of Cambridge talent flocking to established studios. Like the bedroom coders of the 80s, small, boutique games developers are thriving again. The ability to distribute games online, and the need for simpler games for mobile platforms, means smaller outfits can flourish – and according to Jan Samols, who oversees the Computer Lab’s outreach activities, graduates are successfully going it alone.

She says: “I think Cambridge is unique in that it produces very entrepreneurial graduates, not only in gaming but in whatever area they may be interested in. I’ve catalogued more than 200 companies that have been started by Computer Lab graduates. Academically, we give them what they need to go it alone, and they can also draw inspiration from graduates who have gone before them and done extremely well.”

But it’s not merely as a graduate career choice that computer gaming permeates the University: it crops up throughout the faculties and departments, including in some unlikely quarters. In the Department of Education’s Centre for Children’s Literature, games are analysed alongside classic books to gain a more complete insight into what influences young people. Elsewhere, the High Performance Computing Service is employing a cluster of graphical processing units developed for game consoles to deliver vast computing power at a low operational cost.

What’s more, the Department of Engineering recently recruited a Senior Teaching Associate in Online Education and Computer Games Technology for an initiative to get school pupils interested in mechanics and engineering. Professor Richard Prager, head of the School of Technology, already maintains a website to help prospective students prepare for interviews. Now he hopes to take the project a step further using interactive games to capture teenagers’ interest.

He says: “I’ve noticed with my own kids and others that they spend a lot of time being enormously creative and ingenious in the way they play games such as Minecraft and Roblox. Now, suppose we could channel all that ingenuity into stuff relevant to engineering. That would be fantastic.”

Words: Will Ham-Bevan

Gaming by the numbers

The UK video games industry is the largest in Europe 

Estimates suggest that the global market for video games will grow from $52.5 billion in 2009 to $86.8 billion in 2014.

The UK games development sector contributes approximately £1 billion to UK Gross Domestic Product  per annum.

The UK games industry employs over 9,000 highly skilled development staff, 80 per cent of whom are employed outside of London.

Figures from TIGA

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