Growing up as an only child at the turn of the millennium in a small town outside the Hungarian capital Budapest, Timea Tabori was fascinated with creating games. “I started crafting word games out of paper and sticky tape. I was always nagging my mum: ‘Can we get a company to make my game?’ Then I found this software on the internet that let you make point and click adventure games and I thought: ‘Wow, I can make them myself and not have to pay someone!’ ”
Eleven years old, Tabori became consumed with research into programming, 3D modelling and more based on books from America she bought online, which had the added benefit of improving her English. “The thing that grabbed me about it as a medium was that you could create a world and generate different experiences. The idea that there could be a living, breathing world in this machine was mind-blowing for me; it went way beyond being a piece of piece of metal to become this powerful story-telling device.”
Tabori enjoyed logic and problem solving: “What if I could combine my love for logic, maths and computers with my love for creating worlds and telling stories. I finally realised that this could be a job and could be a living. My parents were very supportive. My friends didn’t really understand. I got a lot of resistance: ‘It’s not a real job.’”
She began looking for universities that could support her ambition and, with few opportunities in Hungary, a family holiday in Ireland pointed the way. At 16, she left home and finished her schooling there, in the process winning a day’s internship at Microsoft. Noting her enthusiasm for computer games, a former employee of Dundee-based developer Realtime Worlds told her about the courses run by Abertay University. In 2013, she graduated with a first class honours degree in computer games technology.
Today, aged 25, she is an engine programmer at Rockstar North in Edinburgh, best known for its development of the Grand Theft Auto series. “The engine is the core technology – the brain and central nervous system, if you like – that a game is built on,” said Tabori. “So, for example we use streaming to load what you would expect to see, depending on what direction you are travelling in a game, but no more – because computers do not have enough memory to cope with the huge amount of data that is in a game. We work on these kinds of optimisations, complex mathematical calculations, to make a game run smoothly; if we do our job right, no-one should notice our work.”
Tabori enjoys the collaborative nature of games development, working with storytellers, artists, illustrators, animators and many more disciplines: “It’s extremely rewarding to work in a creative team combining so many different talents. “In games development, there isn’t a skill you don’t need because you are creating worlds – and the skills necessary to do that reflect real-world skills. There isn’t a degree that would lock you out of a career in technology. Psychology. Architecture. One of my colleagues; his degree is in zoology! He doesn’t need that specifically to do his job, but that kind of background knowledge can be super-relevant.
“And in the way that games development requires different skills and people from diverse backgrounds, the other way of looking at it is that every sector is going digital. So to have digital skills is important regardless of what industry you choose. That’s why I feel so strongly that an understanding of technology should be taught alongside English, maths and languages. Technology is all around us, but if we don’t understand it then we begin to lose our authority over it.”
Tabori is pleased to see the growth in community-based computer coding initiatives for young people, but believes that learning to code is not an end in itself: “Children should use critical thinking, be able to analyse, evaluate and form a judgement. We still have an educational structure that punishes curiosity and energy. Children should be able to question what they are learning; is it useful, is going to help them change the world? “Too many come out of school thinking: ‘That’s my education over’. It breaks my heart. For any women out there who would like to get into computer games as a career, I would say: ‘go for it’. We do need to bring more diverse voices to the table and people will find that every day it is exciting.”
She also sees great potential for learning in computer games. “The public’s perception is that it’s just violence and ‘shoot ’em ups’. But there are some amazing collaborations happening within gaming, exploring things like otherness – being different – and mental health issues, for example. The interactive element of games is the perfect medium to build empathy. The production of these different experiences is happening, but the general public are not as aware as perhaps they could be. I feel the industry needs to do work on that.”
There had been a growing awareness of the innovative use of games in learning, health and civic engagement, said Tabori, but there has been a barrier between the industry and the public, exemplified by the phenomenon in which dedicated gamers – but also misogynistic, hiding behind anonymity afforded by the internet – targeted women with rape and death threats. Normally, a core audience would be the people to evangelise to a wider public: “We are slowly overcoming the obstacles, but for a long time we were limited by people who saw themselves as gatekeepers.”
If any good had come of the episode it was that there was now a much greater awareness of the importance of diversity. Tabori said she hoped that greater freedom to express diverse views would lead to more creative development and use of games. It is a trend that has already begun, with some games eschewing the simple ‘shoot, blow things up, move up a level’ mode and embracing more nuanced journeys that subvert the default actions that players have been conditioned to take.
“There should be more social awareness in what is created and we should use the opportunity in gaming to challenge the status quo,” said Tabori. She cited 80 Days, loosely based on the Jules Verne classic, which was named one of Time magazine’s games of the year. “It’s not just about getting around the world in 80 days, it acknowledges other things like staying within budget, for example. And if you decide not to go around at all and instead run off with your gay lover to the North Pole, it acknowledges that as well!”
ABOUT TIMEA TABORI
l Game engine programmer, Rockstar North l Chair, International Game Developers Association Scotland. l STEM and Video Game Ambassador l CoderDojo mentor