Courtesy of Howest University of Applied Sciences

Unwrap Festival: How Howest University inspires students to think beyond game development

We all experience that feeling of unease as we transition from school to our career. After years of having everything planned out for you, you suddenly have to choose your own adventure. But thankfully, real-time students have an automatic leg-up, as industry after industry sees game engine skills as the path to their next big thing.

Just look at how quickly TV and film productions have gone from traditional sets to in-camera VFX, LED stages, and using real-time workflows in movies like The Matrix Resurrections. Or how music artists and labels are creating VR experiences in Fortnite that are prompting some of music’s biggest sites to question, “Where are we going next?” Mixed reality spectacles are even showing up at the big game, turning ordinary days into viral moments.

The world is truly an ocean of possibilities for these students, and yet, many have no idea.

Howest University of Applied Sciences set out to change that by coming up with a festival that would not only alert them to these possibilities but give them an opportunity to make the types of connections that might lead to a future dream job. Two years in and Howest’s students are already starting to see that game skills are becoming something of a golden ticket.
Courtesy of Howest University of Applied Sciences

Curating careers

Unwrap Festival is all about crossovers. Namely, the places where games and entertainment meet, whether that’s film, music, media, or even the interactive designs that have become a hallmark of transmedia campaigns. While each year features a multitude of topics and speakers, there’s also an organizing theme.

Initially, that meant pondering how the music industry could use game tech to contend with the turmoil of COVID-19. This year, the focus was more on virtual production and the opportunities of Web3. And each year, the subject matter is expected to evolve—just like in the real world—so students always have a direct line into what’s happening.

The key for Howest is to provide students with a chance to engage with these changes.

“Our curriculum already seeks to train people on applications outside the video game industry, and many of our courses—Communication, Applied Games, Prototyping, Entrepreneurship—are widely applicable,” says Rik Leenknegt, Academic Director at Howest’s DAE Studios. “The challenge isn’t in the skillsets, but in seeding an interest in the entertainment industry. We just want them to know they have options.”
Courtesy of Howest University of Applied Sciences

Opening minds

However, like building a career, the path forward is rarely clear-cut, often requiring a bit of trial and error. The secret sauce for Unwrap hinges on exposure. When you show people more paths, you broaden their frame of reference. And when those moments are led by inspiring people who have already found success in another field, then you open up moments of inspiration—and that’s what spins people off into exciting new directions.
The organizers know this, so they’ve designed Unwrap to cater to these moments, presenting attendees with over 30 panels and intimate sessions, most of which focus on how game tech is changing the entertainment industry (for good).

“We want to inspire, so every year we actively search for thought leadership talks and demonstrations of cool, creative, and innovative applications of technologies that don’t just center on a single domain,” says Leenknegt.

This means an attendee is just as likely to hear musicians talk about creating VR experiences for their albums, as they are a researcher discussing advances in artificial intelligence and its impact on VFX. The festival even brought in an Xbox Games Studios Accessibility Lead to speak about the importance of accessibility in games.

With Unwrap, students can quickly grasp the kaleidoscopic nature of modern real-time projects, while taking in how (and why) so many industries are evolving right now.
Courtesy of Howest University of Applied Sciences

Creating connections

Exposure to big ideas is only the start, though. Unwrap also encourages students to act on their curiosities and attend the career fair. Or ask a guest speaker and/or exhibitor a follow-up question; anything it takes to help them find a fit or learn whether they should prioritize certain skills going forward. In 2022, 70-80 organizations participated in the Unwrap event, giving students a wide variety of experts to talk to.

And while most students will opt for careers within established companies, Howest also wants to provide avenues for the more entrepreneurially minded within their ranks. This begins throughout the year, as students engage in pitching sessions and ends at the event, where students observe startups pitching their ideas/businesses to potential investors. The side benefit to this unique curriculum/event is that even when students don’t pursue this path, taking in the investor feedback teaches them a lot about how ideas are considered by various stakeholders, making it easier to progress their career.

“Students often walk away surprised at where their skills can take them,” says Leenknegt. “It’s easy to get so focused on your degree that you can forget to stop and look around once in a while. Unwrap is just another way for them to figure out what they really want to do.”

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