Play on: Malta's game design school climbs up the ranks

Our aim is to further improve Malta’s leading position on the world map of academic excellence in games, says Georgios N. Yannakakis.

Can you give us an overview of the Institute of Digital Games?

The Institute of Digital Games is the centre for research and education in game design, game analysis and game technology at the University of Malta. Our work is at the forefront of innovative games research. We explore and play games, uncovering new playful and generative possibilities in game design and technology. We delve into everything games can teach us about ourselves. The Institute has two main research foci and corresponding groups: artificial intelligence and digital humanities.


For the third consecutive year, the Institute of Digital Games has been ranked one of the top graduate schools in the world according to the Princeton Review®. Can you tell us more about the strategy behind your success?

We were really excited to see ourselves climbing from number 23 in 2017 to 22 in 2018, and ultimately to the 17th place in 2019. The prestigious Princeton Review considers several factors for making a comprehensive assessment about graduate programmes all over the world. Some key factors include the research excellence of the academic staff and their commitment to the industry, the involvement of key industrial players in the design of the graduate programme and the teaching activities, the career paths of students and alumni, and the availability of externally funded projects. It seems we have been doing very well across all these factors, hence we happily found ourselves in the 17th position this year. It is worth noting that the University of Malta is the only institution from continental Europe featured in the list, leaving behind top US universities such as MIT and Northeastern. 


What would you highlight as the main challenges and opportunities you are facing?

The University of Malta has been the ideal place for establishing this Institute almost six years ago. With the help of a national strategy focusing on creative industries and a hospitable Mediterranean environment, we were able to attract world-class academics in the  area of game research and students with impressive creative skills in games and design. The Institute is uniquely placed at the crossroads of two national strategies: the one in creative industries and the more recent one in artificial intelligence. As a response to this unique position, we have been supporting the two initiatives from a research and educational perspective since our establishment.

The key challenge we have been facing since our early days in Malta is the association of our aim and work with the iGaming industry in Malta. While our students can support - and have supported - the iGaming industry in several capacities and roles, our educational programme and research agenda have little or nothing to do with games of chance or games not requiring skill. Instead, our programme focuses on graduate education (MSc and PhD level) of creative students in the areas of game design, analysis and technology; our research spans from philosophy and digital humanities, to artificial intelligence and human computer interaction – within or beyond games. Our graduates and alumni are employed in several digital game companies in Malta and abroad, or alternatively they decide to set up their own game startups; some of them choose to follow a game research path at the University of Malta or at other universities abroad. We are proud to have the chance to increase awareness of the educational and research role of our Institute among the general public.


Malta has positioned itself as Europe’s iGaming capital and is now seeking to attract greater numbers of video-gaming companies. Do you believe Malta has what it takes to become a hub for game development and video-gaming companies?

Yes, and we are here to support this vision. We have been actively consulting and consulted by local companies, assisting them in their hiring process, bridging the gap between academia and the industry through common projects. Since our establishment, we have been actively participating in a creative dialogue about the future of game development in Malta, and providing educational and research support to this initiative.  


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The iGaming industry is one of the drivers of the Maltese economy, and it requires a specialised workforce. Many gaming companies affirm that finding talent with the right skills remains a challenge. What roles does the Institute play in addressing this challenge?


As mentioned earlier, the skillsets of our graduates can most definitely serve the iGaming industry. We have numerous cases of students opting for an iGaming career instead of a video game development career. However, it is important to note that our educational vision is to train creative game designers and developers who will excel in making unconventional games, and place Malta on the world-map of game development with games such as Conflict of Nations by Dorado Games, a growing studio that employs many of our graduates, or alternatively, educate students who will excel as researchers of AI, game research and the digital humanities.


Many industries are using gamification. What career paths do graduates from the Institute of Digital Games typically pursue and what industries in Malta, and globally, are embracing this idea the most?

One of the distinctive features of our graduate degree is that it fuses research-based teaching with practical work. In fact, our M.Sc. students are even allowed to create artefacts as part of their dissertation. This gives them the opportunity to both continue in academia or work in the video game industry. More than half of our graduates work in the gaming industry or are pursuing further studies related to games. The remaining have chosen to start their own companies, work as software developers for tech companies, or apply what they have learned outside the digital games sector by working for iGaming companies, for example.


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Malta Global Game Jam is a creative event where participants can team up with other people to develop a playable game in 48 hours. Can you tell us a bit more about this event and why would you encourage people from the iGaming industry to participate?

It is a great social event where your skillset is often tested to the limit, and it is something I would recommend to anyone who wants to complete an interesting project in a fun environment. It offers people working in the iGaming industry an opportunity to experiment with new things without the pressure of failure. On the one hand, it allows them to experiment with mechanics for gambling games they may be interested to try out, but aren’t sure would work. Ultimately, a gambling game overlaps in many areas of development if not execution. They also have an opportunity to apply what they have learned about game design in their line of work and translate it to a different type of game, which could be equally interesting to them and potentially open up a whole new world of possibilities. After all, when people ask professionals what is the best way to get into the videogame industry, the answer is often simply 'make a game'. The Game Jam provides the occasion and the team to do just that.




What is your future outlook for the industry and where would you like the Institute of Digital Games to be positioned in five years?

With the support of the national strategy and Malta Enterprise I see a bright future for the video game industries in Malta. I also see the potential of new AI-based start-ups being established on the island, which can further support both the video game and the iGaming industries. Our short-term aim as an Institute is to grow the number of students that we admit so that we can cover our research needs and the country’s demand for well-trained talent. Our core vision from the start has been to make the country and the University of Malta proud of our achievements and further improve Malta’s leading position on the world map of academic excellence in games.  


Georgios N. Yannakakis is Associate Professor at the Institute of Digital Games, University of Malta (UoM). He received the Ph.D. degree in Informatics from the University of Edinburgh in 2005. Prior to joining the Institute of Digital Games, UoM, in 2012 he was an Associate Professor at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen. Georgios is one of the leading researchers within player affective modeling and adaptive content generation for games. He has pioneered the use of preference learning algorithms to create statistical models of player experience which drive the automatic generation of personalized game content. He has published over 160 journal and conference papers in the aforementioned fields and his work has been cited broadly.



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