For María De Lourdes Barrios, dean at Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico in Panama, videogames are a serious matter. The university is in charge of ensuring a quality education for graphic designers and programmers in an industry that has set out to become one of the driving forces of the digital economy in the region:the gaming industry. 

We sat down with her for an interview and talked about the economic and social benefits that will mean for Panama to offer the first bachelor’s degree in videogame design and development in the region.

Let’s start with a cliché: “to make videogames is the dream job of every adult that refuses to grow up.”

 It is indeed a cliché.  It is one thing to play a videogame, but to develop one is a very different matter.

Think about the wider spectrum of videogame use; then it’s easier to see the sector’s significance, not only economically, but also in terms of social impact.

According to Wikipedia, gamification refers to the use of videogame mechanics to foster certain conducts or learning in human beings.  In other words, videogames are not only entertaining, but they also allow us to generate a whole series of learning and knowledge resources.   Some good examples:  virtual classrooms, flight simulators, applications for the medical industry or virtual reality’s potential that allow us to get close to places when we are not actually there.

One of the areas we are encouraging from the university is the development of videogame tech applications for projects with a cause.

How do you convince a parent that creating videogames is a good career choice?

With facts and figures. This is one of the most attractive industries and with the greatest global projection.

World rankings show that the top 3 videogame developers – China, the United States and Japan – generated revenues of more than 1,000 trillion dollars in 2017.

In Latin America, according to the 2017 Free Global Games Market Report NewZoo.com, the industry leaders are Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.

In these countries, the industry is currently making 4.4 trillion dollars.  It is expected that by 2020 this figure will go up to 118 trillion.

Moreover, there is a whole merchandising industry coexisting with it, that is, products related to these videogames ready to be commercialized.

In Mexico, for instance, 55,8 million active gamers spend an average of 1,6 trillion dollars a year in this market; 70% of these gamers invest in industry-related items.

Therefore, it is a sector with enormous  possibilities in terms of both economic  and talent generation potential.

However, the industry is almost nonexistent in Panama.  Why did Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico choose the country to offer this degree?

We currently have this same program in Puerto Rico. However, because it is a US territory, there are some limitations such as access to visas for Latin American students.

That’s why we looked for a strategic place that could be the meeting point for students in the region, from where we could offer them, at the end of their studies, access to the videogame creation ecosystem that the region currently does not have.

Because of its connectivity, as well as its political, social and economic stability, Panama was the perfect country for this.

Additionally, the City of Knowledge Foundation has been a key driver for us to be here. Their interest in attracting technology and innovation, the facilities that the campus offers the students and their support of entrepreneurship through their “business incubator” have all been fundamental.

The university’s establishment in Panama will allow us to develop a very powerful industry in the medium term; part of the revenues expected for 2020 will remain here. We want this to be the videogame hub in the region.

That means that the sector could be a good source of job creation …

 Indeed.  It is estimated that by the year 2020 there will be one million job openings related to this industry throughout the region. The data also indicate that there will only be about 400,000 qualified candidates; in other words, we are not prepared to meet that demand.

At a global level, there is a fear that machines will carry out many of the jobs we do now. But from another perspective, this means that there is and will be a high demand for professionals who know how to program these machines.

That is why we must flip traditional educational models, guiding students towards the careers that will have ample demand in the future.

And I understand that’s why we need universities to develop videogames in the region.

 Bachelor’s degrees in videogame development have existed for decades worldwide, but in Latin America, only the Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico offers training in videogame development, design and programming, all in a single degree program.

Currently, professionals from other disciplines related to computing are the ones doing these jobs, thanks to specializations in video games available via executive degrees.

Moreover, just like in the cinematographic industry, the videogame industry requires multidisciplinary, highly-qualified profiles.

The development of a videogame is not a one or two-person job, it is a team effort: one needs a good script, top-notch design, programming, to develop a soundtrack, and also, to understand sales and distribution channels…

That is why it is so important to have a training platform that allows to obtain expertise in all relevant areas,  and thus be able to face the industry’s complexity.

Are there figures on how the sector is like currently in Panama?

 Recently, the Economic Council for Latin America put together an intersectoral roundtable in Panama that is conducting a baseline study to find out where we are at the moment.  From there, the idea is to implement all necessary measures and incentives to boost the industry.

Public sector institutions such as SENACYT have a seat at the table, as well as third-sector organizations, such as the City of Knowledge and us, as an academy.

What we do know is that this is an emerging industry. Panama appears in the Newzoo ranking highlighting the 100 countries with the best estimates for global gaming revenues.

Let’s put an end to another myth: Are video games and their development still men’s business?

Let me leave you with a fact that gives us a glimpse of the answer: 90% of our professors, who come from different parts of the world, are women. Our students, who until now are Panamanians, are all men.

However, we can already see the change happening. The first Panamanian team to develop a video game sold on PlayStation is co-founded by a woman: Rita Ríos.

Having role models like Rita or our professors will surely generate a change in the paradigm. In such a powerful industry, women should not be left out.

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