How construction became the career of choice for the UK’s top gaming specialists

Construction companies are seeing an influx of game design graduates and ex-gamers, transferring their visualisation and digital design skills from the virtual to the physical world, reports James Kenny.

Late on a Friday night Tim Hanson is working alone in engineer Walsh Group’s office near London Bridge, poring over plans for the £250m Brighton Marina. Unhappy with his work, he removes various walls, destroying the entire project. With the touch of a few buttons he rebuilds the structure in minutes.

Hanson is of course on his laptop and works as a 4D visualisation technician at the company. He’s just one of a growing wave of millennials entering construction, swapping Xboxes for hard hats and blending the world of virtual reality and gaming with the built environment.  

He says: “With gaming and animation you can bend the rules of design and use it for construction. I think the construction industry is just starting to realise the full extent of the talent it can tap into from the animation and gamers’ community, and how these skills can be applied to projects.” 

The video game industry has undergone significant changes from the early days of playing Pong on the Atari. It now generates more revenue than the film and music industries worldwide.

According to the Association for United Kingdom Interactive Entertainment (Ukie), the only trade body for the UK’s games and interactive entertainment industry, UK consumer spend on games was valued at a record £4.33bn last year, up 1.2% from £4.28bn in 2015. Sales in the UK in 2016 also surged, increasing by 2.9% to £2.96bn.

However, despite these numbers and a growing number of UK-based game companies, many young game design graduates and ex-gamers are being lured by the bright lights of construction, where pay is better and the challenges can be greater and therefore more rewarding. With the emergence of BIM, augmented reality and other immersive technologies, the potential for those with a gaming background to influence real change is exciting, and is cited by many as the main draw for joining construction.

Damien Walton, a 4D VR specialist at contractor Mace, says: “When I first walked into the office and saw the way they worked, that was a big thing. I realised there was a huge technology gap – the designers doing everything in 3D, but then everyone else has drawings. I thought: we’ve got to be able to do something better than this.” 

Walton joined Mace in 2012 after being talent-spotted while on a video games design course at Birmingham Metropolitan College. Joining originally as a trainee CAD technician, he is now a CAD 3D/4D VR specialist.

He cut his teeth working on Birmingham New Street station, where he worked alongside the planning and design teams to create 2D/3D visuals, all the while learning about the industry and management techniques.

Walton states that while the challenge of driving change is a key motivating factor, there are more practical reasons that make construction more attractive. He says: “Working on something physical and then seeing the end result definitely has its advantages, as I’m quite hands-on anyway. But being able to physically walk around something, where it’s not just virtual, was appealing and I think a lot of people feel that.”

Another reason for the migration of talent is that, despite it being a young and progressive industry, games development is also highly competitive. According to graduate careers organisation Prospects, typical starting salaries for artists/animators and programmers in games development are around £19,000 to £25,000, while in construction they are £23,000 to £28,000.

Mundane realities

Many graduates looking to join the video games sector are also frustrated by the lack of quality jobs available, and those lucky enough to secure a position with the industry’s largest companies are often disappointed by the mundane realities of video game development.

This is confirmed by Hanson at Walsh, who originally worked in animation, visuals and internet advertising when he left university, but found the whole process quite boring. 

He says: “I tried animation, working freelance and working for a company, and, while animation in general is very freeing, I didn’t like people necessarily telling me what to do. Also some of the work is so repetitive – the same thing every day – and this just gets frustrating. The good thing about Walsh is they’re not an enormous company but my ideas are always listened to. I’ve been working on the 4D visualisation tool and been given the time and space to do this.”

The 4D tool is a fully interactive 4D animation package that can be viewed on desktops, laptops, tablets and mobiles on site, and can be used on projects for safety briefings, site familiarisation and logistical purposes such as understanding crane placements or changes to traffic. It is based on computer game technology and amalgamates programme information such as architectural and structural plans and 3D models to provide viewers with an understanding of complex plans.

This is an example of the benefits that construction can see from recruiting and encouraging gamers into the industry – and companies are starting to catch on.

Engineering and professional services giant WSP is another company that has begun recruiting game designers and graduates with this experience. Calum Sinclair, a visualisation specialist with the firm, started work straight out of university last November. He is one of the new breed of graduates WSP is actively recruiting to be led by UK head of project technology Frank McLeod.

Sinclair studied gaming at Glasgow School of Art and is now using BIM to produce VR models for clients. He was first introduced to the construction industry at a hackathon called Hack Construct, which runs regular events.

He says the potential in the construction industry is what attracted him to apply for a job: “I noticed that construction industry was one that wasn’t adopting quick enough, compared to medical which I was doing some work in before. Also, a lot of what I take for granted in games, people in the construction industry have never seen and it’s great to see people taking these new concepts and ways of working and being excited by them.”

Breaking down barriers

However, Sinclair and others admit that, while the potential in the industry is exciting, pushing forward change and converting some of the older generation can be difficult, and there are still barriers to breakdown. The construction industry has an ageing workforce – 30% of the industry is over 50. Wafer-thin margins also mean that money to invest in R&D is not as forthcoming – despite an often huge turnover.

Walton says: “The mindset of some people in the construction industry can still be an issue. You’re going from a gaming area where people talk your language, to where they look at you blank faced. So you have to be able to communicate and explain your ideas properly – for example why you want to spend £5,000 on a piece of software.”

Some more traditional workers state that these new younger recruits expect results too fast and are irritated by the slow pace of tech adoption in the industry. One senior consultant  recounted how one of their new millennial trainees was embarrassed that the company still used Outlook for its email and considered it a dinosaur technology. However, most companies – in construction and elsewhere – still use Outlook. 

Despite potential culture clashes, there is growing awareness of the potential of gaming expertise and in general old-school attitudes are changing. Sarah Hodges, director of construction business at Autodesk, works extensively with construction companies as well as in the digital world and believes that the changing age of the general workforce will address this problem and bring both worlds closer together.

She says: “The generation that will be taking over the construction industry grew up on computers and video games. Those under the age of 35 probably have at least 25 years of experience in a video game and technological world.

“This generation is familiar with graphical user interface and comfortable with manoeuvring through virtual environments so you’ll see this automatically being adopted into working practices in the construction world and elsewhere the industry may adapt, such as teaching gaming elements in engineering degrees.”

Mace’s Walton too points to a greater breaking-down of barriers: “In my first few years I saw some stigma. As soon as I mentioned in a meeting I had a games background I got a blank look. But once they realised that my skillset is beyond a games nerd they started to see the potential for projects.”

He adds: “Our main problem now is actually recruiting people; you need talented game developers, but also ones with the right interests. Not all are suited to construction.

“Video games are an art form and construction is very technical. You need to be able to work in both.”

‘There is so much potential in construction’

Matthew Knott left a high-flying role to blend the virtual and real worlds

It is not just young millennials that are moving into the industry. Matthew Knott is currently BIM manager for AWW Architects in Bristol, but in his former life he had a long and successful career in the video game industry.

Knott, who is 48, began working for video game publisher MicroProse in his mid-20s and worked on games such as Gunship 2000, X-COM: Apocalypse and X-COM: Terror from the Deep.

He rose quite high in the industry but ultimately decided to switch lanes a few years ago, doing a BIM master’s at UWE Bristol and then joining the construction industry. While his reasons were primarily family related, the element of innovation in construction also excited him.

“I was lured away by the potential of weaving the virtual and actual world, in conjunction with the BIM Level 2 mandate and the vision for Digital Built Britain. There is so much potential in the construction industry with BIM and new technologies, and there is a skills shortage of those who can bridge the gap between the two industries.”

Since joining the industry, Knott says he has been inspired by the challenges and experiences so far, such as working as a BIM consultant with parliament.

He says the lack of work satisfaction within the games world – particularly for younger people – is a motivating factor that leads people to look elsewhere.

“I was quite lucky in that all of the games I worked on were published, but in the video game industry you can work on a game for three years and then it is scrapped suddenly – all that hard work for nothing. That rarely happens in construction; projects are seen through.”

Questioned about salary differences, Knott says that as he rose quite high in the games industry, he was quite well paid. However the younger graduates interviewed for this article agree that in general the  salaries in construction are better than in gaming and other visual areas.

The generation that will be taking over the construction industry grew up on computers and video games. Those under the age of 35 probably have at least 25 years of experience in a video game and technological world.– Sarah Hodges, Autodesk

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