Still Curious S2E5 - James Birt

James Birt00:00

Computer games was my entire childhood, taught me things, was my educator, everything. It was so funny to see the stigma around games. You would have the graduations, the Dean would say, 'and now here are the graduates from the Bachelor of Computer Games', and you could see the sniggering around the audience. And I went, 'why is it that there's this stigma?'

Danu Poyner00:24

You're listening to the Still Curious Podcast with me, Danu Poyner. My guest today is James Birt who is an associate professor of Computer Games and Film, Screen, and Creative Media at Bond University in Queensland, Australia. James specializes in interactive, mixed reality experiences, sits on the International Organization for Standardization working group for augmented and virtual reality and also manages Bond University's e-sports program.

In today's episode, we discuss the tensions and interplay between formal and informal modes of learning, how games taught James important life skills and the value of innovation and entrepreneurship in education.

James Birt01:05

It's about creating and making. That's the key that creativity, that spark of wanting to do. That's not something that I think can be formalized in teaching that well.

Danu Poyner01:16

James observes why many kids who love school in their early years fall out of love with it. Once they get to high school.

James Birt01:22

If it was a game, we would say there's something wrong with the onboarding, we've got to rebuild the tutorial.

Danu Poyner01:28

And unpacks the pedagogical value of game jams and hackathons.

James Birt01:32

You're essentially doing authentic examination under real world conditions, doing direct application of knowledge. If you do not know what you're doing, you ain't going to win the game jam.

Danu Poyner01:43

We talk about how James uses virtual reality in the classroom, the parallels between e-sports and regular sports, how games helped James, when he broke his back, the importance of standards and governance, and ultimately why James believes so strongly in formalized education.

James Birt02:00

The tech industry saying, we don't need formal education.

We can validate their skillset by hosting a hackathon and seeing how they solve the problem, and then bringing them in. Then what ends up happening is that they'll go in and they may not survive within those organizations. I think having legitimacy there is really important.

Danu Poyner02:20

It's a jam packed, heartfelt and thoughtful episode. I hope you enjoy it. It's James Birt coming up after the music break on today's episode of the Still Curious Podcast.


Part 1

James, welcome to the podcast. How are you?

James Birt02:58

Brilliant mate, such a wonderful day here in Queensland. So looking outside and seeing the beautiful blue skies after quite an interesting couple of weeks here in the sunshine state, or should I say the not so sunshine state.

At the end of the day, we've got to look at the silver lining and I think that's probably a good way of starting off this podcast. Isn't it?

Danu Poyner03:18

Absolutely. It's nice to be doing this in person. This is the first time I've had an in-person conversation on the podcast.

I've got so much to ask you about, so I'm gonna dive in if that's all right.

James Birt03:26


Danu Poyner03:26

So you're an associate professor of computer game and film screen and creative media at Bond University, where you specialize in applied design and development of interactive, mixed reality experiences, assisting learning skills, acquisition, and knowledge discovery.

You write for national media outlets, including the ABC and The Conversation and The Project. You have a position on the International Organisation for Standardisation working group for AR and VR. And you are involved as an assessor for the International Serious Games Showcase and Challenge. That's a lot.

What would you say is the most important thing for someone to understand about what you do?

James Birt04:04

If one was to look at a singular word, it would be education. And then I would say, secondly, it would be how games and how play, and how I guess these things that we did in our childhood, could actually have meaning to what we do today in our business life and in our careers.

The technology is always there. I've been in technology ever since I was about two or three years old. My father was a electrical engineer and he brought a computer. I didn't even know what a computer was and he sat this thing in front of me and he said, I think this is something that you should learn.

This was about 1982. It was IBM clone. I remember sitting there and the first thing I did with that computer was play a game. That game was alley cat, and then the second game I ever played was, Digger. I was fascinated with everything about games. I started from about the age of five, wanting to create games. My father worked at Telecom, which was the former Telstra, and he was best mates with a systems analyst and programmer who could program in binary and hexadecimal. That's where I started learning.

We used to go over on a weekend and he would have a coffee and catch up. And then Ken would take me into the other room and teach me programming. It was always about gaming, but then using that for positive outcomes. Right from the beginning, it was education through games. I learned to type through games.

Space quest was one of the first lexicon, parser games that I played. And I would have only been five or six. You had to type, "throw the grenade", and if you didn't type it fast enough, you would die. Here I was, youngster trying to type, and one finger typing wasn't going to cut it because I couldn't type fast enough to be able to pass that part of the game. There was no saved games or anything like that, so you had to start all the way back at the beginning again.

I was motivated to learn to type very quickly. Right from the beginning is games taught me something. Would that make space quest a serious game? Well, in some ways one could argue it certainly taught a skill set, which by definition of serious games is one of the outcomes that you want to achieve. Very interesting how entertainment and how gaming can lead to serious outcomes in this case, learning to type, learning to spell. You had to spell correctly or it would say, don't understand what you're talking about.

Danu Poyner06:29

Yeah. Fantastic. Thanks for that. You've mentioned a whole lot of things there that I'd like to unpack, but it sounds like you got a real headstart.

I had a similar experience. My granddad was a tinkerer in electronics, and I used to get his hand me down PCs in the late eighties and nineties, and started out with games. I've always felt that games have given me certain kinds of life skills.

You mentioned education being the core. How conscious were you of this path you were taking? Because one of the things we always talk about on the podcast is people's plan A in life. And most people are not on plan A but it sounds like this has been a plan A for you.

James Birt07:08

Right from the beginning I had that affinity with computers, games, programming. I would open up the computer and look at the various electronics in there. And cos' dad was a electrical engineer, he could explain to me what capacitors and transistors and microchips and other things were.

He was not a programmer, but he could almost unpack what was happening. So rather than just this black box sitting in front of me, right from that early age, I started to understand what was underneath the hood of that black box.

That sparked my curiosity around what computers were, and then what software was, and that real difference between hardware and software.

It's the black box. Right from that early day, I learned what was in the black box. Then I got hijacked in that, everyone around me said, oh, maybe you should be a doctor. So all through primary school and early high school, my focus was to become a medical doctor.

I was going to be a plastic surgeon. Not that I knew anything about it. It was probably related to the money and maybe the profession itself. I did really well with grades up until maybe Year 10.

In uni I was a distinction average, in high school I was a B average, and I think it was that. And the way that the university curriculum works, essentially, there was no pathways into medicine in those days.

You have to be the top of the top. I realized that I wasn't going to get into medicine. I didn't have the grades, but I knew what my plan B was and that was computer science.

When I graduated from high school, 1997, 6 or seven, all of the universities were closing down their computer science programs and up rose IT.

I basically went well, if there's no computer science, I'll go into an IT program. Again, I got my B averages. Funnily enough, the areas I had the most affinity towards was probably more of the communications side around IT and those soft skills of IT, project management and leadership and running teams, that side. Programming, not as much. I did well with programming in high school, but I didn't translate so well to programming at undergraduate university. That formalization of programming wasn't really instilled in high school. I felt, I knew the basics and actually in not then engaging with the basics, I perhaps missed those foundational steps of programming to then support the more advanced level programming.

Even though I could pass it, I never got the high distinctions in the programming. Whereas when it came to the more soft skill leadership, software engineering design approaches, they were the ones that I did really well in. From the end of my degree, towards 1999, I was very fortunate in that our head of school at the time came into the lab while I was there with my mates and he said, oh, you guys are all pretty good students.

We would happen to be the only ones there at nine o'clock at night, finishing off an assignment. And he said to us, Oh look, we've got an industry project that we need some people to do, so there's no no. You're going off and you're doing it. It happened to be with Kelvin Ross, a prolific entrepreneur here in Southeast Queensland and has done a lot of work around business enterprise and other things, and very capable in the whole connection of how digital technologies can innovate.

So we went and worked for him at Compaq research and development. That was at the time when the gold coast was meant to be the Silicon valley of Australia and the Southern hemisphere.

And you have many different organizations and it was a research culture. It ran like Silicon valley because basically, their partner was in Palo Alto. We would get up early in the morning and have conversations with the crew over in Palo Alto.

We were there as testers and it was really good, fun to work on innovative projects, like precursors to iPods and work on all of these projects that, even today, you're only just seeing some of this.

That was my Xerox park moment. I could see research development, innovation, and really high caliber individuals working in amazing environments with lots of other high caliber individuals. I decided that I wanted to go and do my honors year because I saw this research culture and I said, oh wow, that's what I want to do.

I asked them, how do I get in here? This is my dream. They said, you need a master's or you need some kind of research degree, maybe up towards a PhD. I went back and did my honors year and just like everything, not everything works out.

And within the first six weeks I left the honors program. I then went back to Compaq. It was that time when the crash happened and also the tax incentives left for the state government.

A number of those high-tech, innovation research and development companies left Australia. You had some of the group move on to places like IBM, which is still here on the gold coast.

Here I was as a graduate, earning over a hundred thousand dollars a year to then all of a sudden have absolutely no work.

Even though crash didn't affect the greater industry, necessarily, that industry of IT and technology, it was total decimation of that industry, especially in Australia.

It went from just such high employability to gig economy, contract to contract, you will work for no more than $35,000 a year. It was a really tough period.

I remember having to traipse up to Brisbane for a contract. I was in this company and the average age was 60 and all of the people that essentially been fired, but they were there to be business analysts to do a data migration project.

You could imagine what their state of mind was. And here is this 19 year old where the average age of those individuals was 60. I thought to myself, this cannot possibly be my career. I remember, coming back, and it poured rain. All of the rail lines got flooded and I was stuck in Brisbane and I had to go and stay in a motel soaked to the bone and I got the flu and all these things. No, this isn't for me. That was the first time I ever quit a job. That was the only time where I just went, no, I just cannot do this.

Then I fell into gaming and I basically just played EverQuest and massive multiplayer games. I just played those incessantly for maybe 12 months. I was looking for jobs, kind of looking, but really just playing games.

Then my honors supervisor rang my father and said, 'oh, what's James doing?'

And he goes, he's sitting, playing computer games. She got me on the phone and said, I'm enrolling you back into the honors program. You cannot say no. I thought that was really fascinating.

And I said, oh, okay. That's sounds. That was it. And I've never left university since. I did my honors. I aced it. Because I learnt you don't get a second chance. And I went, I can't fail at this. I applied for PhD scholarship and I didn't get a first round PhD scholarship on 99.8 because someone else got 99.9.

It shows you how competitive that is. That person didn't take on the scholarship. It came to me essentially did my PhD looking at quality assurance.

It was utilizing machine learning. So I use genetic algorithms and neural networks and other things to understand errors in source code for the purpose of how do we optimize our application of testing resources to apply them in the areas that need it the most.

It taught me the idea of problem optimization, which essentially is the cornerstone of machine learning and how it's used today within data science and other things that probability of outcome.

I finished that within just under three years. Then I was introduced to bureaucracy. My PhD supervisor went on long service leave and it was nearly 12 months from finishing my PhD to actually submitting my PhD because she wasn't there to review. And my co-supervisor had left the institution through redundancy. It was very fascinating to see that bureaucratic kind of underplay take place. But during that time I was teaching tutoring and then I started taking courses. So with her going on, her long service leave and sabbaticals, I essentially took the software engineering courses and the project management courses.

I was teaching six subjects at the institution I was at and loving the teaching. Because I was more of the student's age, there was that connection with the students and myself. It was really fascinating teaching people much older than I was as well.

I got my PhD and then I started to work at lots of different institutions.

I never wanted to leave the gold coast. I love it here. I genuinely do. And so work was always something that enabled me to stay. There's not that many universities on the gold coast, only a couple. So trying to get a full-time gig was tough. I was a sessional.

It was just about constantly teaching, and not being able to have the capacity to build from there. In 2008, I was teaching across three institutions. So bond Griffith and central Queensland Uni. There was one semester where I was teaching 11 subjects across the three institutions I was doing night work day work.

I managed to do it, but then I could see the writing on the wall. Cause again, it was redundancies, this is always the way in any business, you have your ups and downs. I could start to see the courses deteriorating. And there was a lot more focus where the course convenors would have to start taking those courses on as opposed to sessionals the sessional is the one that gets shed.

And, I did my PhD because of one of the teachers and this teacher at the uni I played chess with on the open day where we went to find out whether that was the university for me.

The first time I ever met this person was playing chess with my PhD supervisor before I started any of my undergraduate. The director, where I was at CQU happened to become the director here at Bond in the college. And he said to me, oh, let me introduce you to Jeff Brand.

I remember having a coffee with Jeff and he said, we've got this new games program that we're launching and you'd be great or your skillset, would really fit in well around the programming and the design and all of these things. You should put in an application.

I did, and I got the job. That was my first proper full-time job. I was super excited and actually met my wife here at Bond. And we had our wedding photos here at Bond.

When Jeff had set up the bachelor of computer games or the bachelor of multi-media. It was so novel. I think we were either the first or second institution in Australia.

He set that up in 2008 and then I came in in 2010. And, it was really novel, but it was so funny to see the stigma around games and you would have the graduations and the Dean would say, and now here are the graduates from the bachelor of computer games and you could see the sniggering around the audience.

Computer games, was my entire childhood, taught me things, was my educator was everything. And I went, why is it that there's this stigma? I didn't even think that there was a stigma because of course I was immersed.

That I think was probably one of the biggest issues that we had to face because universities were always meant to be about the bachelors of businesses, laws and the list. And here was this bachelor of computer Games.

Yeah. The numbers were fantastic in the early days. And then they started to dry up and we would ask, why is that? Oh, you know, I really want my son or daughter to do a law degree, or I want them to do medicine. Oh, why not this? And then the grandparents would say, oh no, you can't do computer games.

They're bad.

Part 2
Danu Poyner19:42

Thank you so much for sharing that and laying out what an incredible series of events that you've described. You've been swept up in some extraordinary trends and events with economic boom and bust cycles and little, serendipitous stuff around taxes, incentives and things.

so You've ridden some of those waves, but also what I heard was a lot of you making your own path through those when the moment arose. Is that something that resonates with you?

James Birt20:06

I do a lot of workshops with young people. My favorite time is actually going out to schools and talking about entrepreneurship.

I constantly am doing that myself. Intrepreneurs or something, I heard that term the other day? I thought, yeah, it's true. That idea that never is anything going to be a smooth road. And being able to have foresight, but then also being able to take enjoyment in what you're doing, because as you said, there's been so many bumps and then rises and falls.

It never changes. You've got to take the joy out of what you do, but at the same time, you've got to constantly be seeing where the next path takes.

The amount of service activity and marketing activity and all the things I do is massive and constantly going out to schools.

And provide young people with some of that lived experience to say that, life is not going to be a straight line. It's about you being able to engineer something that fits you and hopefully in a way change it. How can one be that person that can change and understand, but deeply understand it, not just from a evangelical sales marketing kind of approach, but actually really be able to talk about it and action it from a lived experience. Having that knowledge around and guiding young people towards it, which is hard because they've not had the lived experience.

They only know what they know. You need to be an entrepreneur and you need to have skills that allow you to be a chameleon because no one else is gonna do it for you. You have to do it. And you have to have a set of agile skills that allows you to duck and weave and carve out a little cave somewhere and be there. Then when the cave's about ready to get flooded, go off and set up another one and be able to work your way up and have success in working your way up as well.

Danu Poyner22:07

Absolutely. The other thing that does strike me from the story you've been telling is about that mix of being self-taught but also combining different things, formal education.

That's not easy to do, and it's not something that comes naturally to everyone.

You're a fairly laid back kind of guy, but you've got this really important message, which is not a message that you hear often in education about being entrepreneurial necessarily. You've quite accomplished and you're very well known in the sector and you've got a lot of attention.

Do people see the striving that happens underneath, because that's a big story that you've just told?

James Birt22:42

Yeah, I don't think so. I think most people see the badges.

People don't see the work that goes into the badge. It's the hard yards of achievement that actually gives you the skills and the resilience to be able to deal with the changing environment around work.

Life families, et cetera. I've certainly noticed it a lot in education, probably more recently than back when I was doing it. And that was instant gratification of outcome. Not appreciating a journey to outcome. You'll hear it from a lot of older academics where they talk about, it's not about the final point.

It's about the journey of getting to that final point. What I've noticed happening a lot now seems to be about instant gratification of the badge and not about the hard work about earning it. In doing so there is a real issue and we can see it in society.

We have so many problems because there is this mindset around instant achievement. The problem with that is that kind of thing reduces achievement. Everyone's a winner. Everyone's got this, everyone's got that. Education should be universal for all. There is no doubt about that, but achievement and striving and hard work and all the rest of it still deserves to have that achievement at the end. Somewhere along the pathway we've lost the badging of achievement. And it's simply just badging of doing something.

Formalized education is really in a way trying to create an optimal workflow, if I use my AI background, to get those skills. It really does help support formal structures of learning and when it's done correctly, but I also a hundred percent support hacking and play and failure because hacking is about failure.

I learned about hexadecimal and programming by hacking Dungeons and dragons games on my IBM client. And going, oh, I want lower armor class, or I want my sword to be higher powered.

It was really cool on the weekend because my daughter, they've gotten into scratch programming and it's all about creating a game.

It's about using games and fun and excitement to excite this idea of algorithmic thinking. She was following some cheats on scratch and making this little puppy dog make sounds and move up and down and jump over things and score points. And I sat there thinking I've not done any of that with her.

Obviously we play games together and we enjoy that but it's interesting to see that she now really wants to make her own.

It's about creating and making. That's where that hacking entrepreneurship, intrepreneurship, whatever we want to call it alongside formal education. That's the key that creativity, that spark of wanting to do. That's not something that I think can be formalized in teaching that well. That self motivation, self-determination. There's gotta be that as a foundation. The entrepreneurs often say, oh, I never even went to uni. I just went and did it. My best mate, through university, who's also an associate professor and his brother never formalized his education, but has made millions of dollars in computer programming.

He built one of the first templating systems for HTML when he was 13. Then he made micro SMS transactions, and then he got into the voiceover IP platforms before they were really a big thing and then sold it for millions of dollars. Formalized education never worked.

He tried to do it. He was actually in my classes and just couldn't sit still. He was constantly sitting there programming his micro SMS platform and not doing the formalized education. So very fascinating to see how that that took place. Whereas his brother was exactly the same as me formalized PhD or associate professor.

It was really interesting to see within the same household, such a variance individuals. There's always been an opportunity for entrepreneurship but there's a lot more in the digital space now with a lot of different platforms to enable content creation.

Danu Poyner26:50

The tension between formal informal kinds of learning is very much at the heart of things that I care about. I'm someone who did well at school for the most part in that environment, but also really hated the experience. Informal It . Resonates with me more. But I think that the game, world is a really interesting space for an academic discipline because in fields like games and tech, more generally credentials seem to matter a lot less than being able to show people what you've done, have a portfolio.

And there's more of a game jam kind of ethic of just learning by doing stuff and putting yourself out there. You're saying you really believe in the formalization of education, so I can see this as really important to you. I wonder if you can say something more about that.

James Birt27:31

Definitely that hackathon game jam approach, one looks at that and the reason why they're so successful at finding individuals is because you're essentially doing authentic examination. From a formalized approach, you're basically being examined under real world conditions, doing direct application of knowledge. If you do not know what you're doing, you ain't going to win the game jam.

The portfolio is an interesting one because I've had students that can create incredible portfolios, but the production of that portfolio is taking them so long that in a way to create and craft this logo or icon or game or whatever it is, if that's taken you thousands of hours, then you're unemployable.

We've moved into this era of portfolio generation, typically around gig economy type stuff. What ends up happening is that they give them a task and then they can take as long or whatever to generate that. If one was to look at say like corporate enterprise work, or user experience, design work, or client work, or even games, you're constantly under crunch, you're constantly having to perform.

A portfolio may not be the best way of actioning someone's capacity under crunch. That's where your game jams and other things really shine in those endeavors. If you look at apprenticeship models, the apprentice learns from the master, and you're only as