Utopia, for those involved in using computer games in education, is to create a hybrid that is both an engaging and authentic gaming experience, and an effective learning tool, something that has the characteristics of a game yet with the content of the traditional curriculum.
It's a difficult balance to achieve, but one that the staff of the computer studies department at West Nottinghamshire College have managed by modifying the adventure game Neverwinter Nights.
It all began as an attempt to engage some rather reluctant learners, as one of those involved, Nigel Oldham, explains: "We are computer science lecturers and we have to teach key skills in communication and application of number. Now learners much prefer to be sitting in front of a computer than a workbook, so we decided to produce a game that required them to learn by having to get through traps and pitfalls and so on. We used the engine in Neverwinter Nights then added more code as we went on to make the game produce a lot of the evidence for the awarding bodies to give a qualification."
Which is just what happens. As you play the game, answers to questions, methods for solving puzzles and calculations are automatically logged. On completion of a task, a click of a button has these printed to be added to a portfolio. However, this isn't a process which does away with the teacher. Far from it - in order to solve the problems students have to know about such things as ratios, averages and even punctuation, and the only way to find out about these is to ask to be taught them.
As Nigel explains, "Something really strange happened. Instead of being reluctant to attend lessons, they started queuing up outside and asking to start early." Staff also hold the passwords to move between levels, so unless they are satisfied the work is completed players can't progress.
There are also off-screen activities built in, such as writing an account of playing a level, or detailing the decisions made when creating a character.
The outcome is something that works well as a game, but which needs real understanding of numerical or language concepts to get through. As well as battering Kobolds (evil subterranean creatures) with a longsword, players must punctuate sentences or map a room to progress, and when releasing prisoners they have to calculate the mean number held in each cell.
In the two years since they first started this project, about 700 learners have played the game at the college, and achievement of key skills has trebled to 94 per cent, so it's no wonder they are already working on level two and have begun to develop a citizenship scenario as well. While their output so far is aimed at the 14-plus market, demand is such that primary pupils may soon be getting their own versions. Perhaps not Neverwinter Nights, but maybe the successor they are already working on, with Atari's wholehearted backing for when this title becomes outdated.
* Neverwinter Nights Learning Environment (Application of Number Level 1 and Communication Level 1) Site licence pound;750 for both Altered Learning www.alteredlearning.com