When Matt McGinley, a primary teacher in West Belfast, decided to use computer games in class, he recalls that "a few eyebrows were raised". It's easy to see why. Computer games have an image problem, blamed for everything from increasing violence to rotting young people's brains through hours of mindless activity.
But a growing number of schools are discovering that computer games can be a springboard for a wide range of educational activities, as well as a tool for boosting pupil enthusiasm and motivation.
This is what happened in Mr McGinley's school, Christ the Redeemer. His class was covering the topic of Formula One racing. "The children wanted to know what it felt like to be a grand prix driver," he says. Mr McGinley decided to use a PlayStation 2 (PS2) console and Formula One, a simulation game used by some professional drivers.
"The children built a life-size car and stuck a PS2 in it," he says. "They also put in a proper car seat and we used a projector to display the driver's viewpoint on a wall. It gave them a real feeling of being enclosed in an F1 car."
The game stimulated many classroom activities: the cars' national flags were used as a starting point for finding out about race tracks in various countries around the world; lap times were used for maths work and the pupils also learnt about financial planning, as they needed to raise sponsorship to buy T-shirts and caps.
"The F1 car raised a lot of interest - and envy - from the children in other classes, and so the class decided to charge them 50p to have a go in the simulator," he says. "The children organised this themselves and used the money raised to buy caps and T-shirts."
There are now plans to use the Nintendo Wii console in lessons, and a game based on the Olympic Games will be used for fitness work. Mr McGinley has no doubt that schools should embrace the potential of computer games: "Children are using this technology in their homes," he says. "You can't stand still - you have to move with the technology."
Scotland is one of the leaders when it comes to using computer games in education. Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) has established the Consolarium, the Scottish Centre for Games and Learning, to explore the potential of computer games in schools.
Ollie Bray, deputy headteacher at Musselburgh Grammar School in East Lothian, is on secondment to the LTS, where he is a national adviser for emerging technologies in learning.
"All teachers realise that games have a place in education, but some have a problem with computer games," he says. "It's just a paradigm shift in the use of play. The game is just the hub - it is the link to creativity and innovative ideas."
At Musselburgh, pupils have been using the Guitar Hero game series, which uses a guitar-shaped controller to play notes displayed on a TV screen. This leads on to numerous activities involving art, design and creative writing.
Mr Bray adds that computer games can be excellent value for money. For instance, the game My French Coach, designed for the Nintendo DS handheld console, costs about #163;10, yet includes an entire French dictionary and about 150 language lessons. Games consoles are also affordable. "You can buy a Nintendo Wii for #163;170 and it is even cheaper if you purchase a reconditioned machine from your local games shop," says Mr Bray. "The games are about #163;20 to 30 each. And many games consoles can also access the internet and even let you access the BBC iPlayer website, so you get a lot for your money."
From this August, games design becomes part of the Scottish school curriculum. Mr Bray says there are a number of free, off-the-shelf engines that children can use for creating computer games.
Derek Robertson, also an LTS national adviser for emerging technologies in learning, says: "Games are about creating a context for learning, from which you can introduce concepts. They can open the door to learning in a powerful way."
When Gillian Penny, headteacher at Gavinburn Primary School in Dunbartonshire, attended a presentation given by Robertson, her eyes were opened to the potential of computer games: "I was shocked that I hadn't thought about using them in lessons," she says.
Gavinburn Primary has also been using Guitar Hero. Children are arranged into groups of four and create their own band, with some becoming so inspired they move on to creating their own music.
"They wrote their own single using a computer program called Garageband and had to plan a band tour to France, which included creating an itinerary and conducting a radio interview in French," says Mrs Penny. The school also has an awards night, where the bands make presentations and perform in front of their parents. "We have a red carpet, black tie and make it a big occasion," she adds.
Other classes in Gavinburn have been using the Nintendo Mario Kart Wii game, which has triggered numerous activities, including art and design work (for creating logos), the study of aerodynamics and friction, web design and geography.
Enfield City Learning Centre in north London has a stock of 25 Nintendo Wii consoles, which it loans to local primary schools. Andrew Rhodes, an ICT consultant at the centre, says that the response from pupils and teachers has been very positive.
"One pupil, who used Guitar Hero World Tour in class, said they had written adverts and posters in persuasive writing, used spreadsheets to plan their tour and looked at different countries."
Another school used the Wii game Shaun White Snowboarding as inspiration to produce a full-size snowboard, with pupil-designed graphics and logos.
Mr Rhodes has been studying the impact of computer games in schools as part of an MA thesis, and found that, in one class, levels in literacy rose significantly after using computer games.
While he acknowledges that it would be unreasonable to assume this was entirely the result of using them, he says the games have played a part.
"I would suggest that this is mainly due to increased engagement in lessons and with related activities, and this, in turn, allows pupils to perform at a level that more truly reflects their ability," he says.
One thing is clear: many teachers using computer games have found that they can have a positive effect on teaching and learning.
"Remember, it's not about the game," says Mr Bray, "but how you can use the game to get the best out of your students."
Games get physical
John Cabot Academy in Bristol has been using the Sony PSP games console in PE lessons.
"It's not easy to use ICT in PE," says Chris Baker, a PE teacher and the school's leader for e-learning, "but the PSP is portable and you don't need to teach the children how to use it."
Mr Baker preloads the console with videos. "If I'm teaching the forward-defence stroke in cricket, children who aren't actively participating can go around showing pupils a video of how to perform the stroke correctly," he says.
Tips for using games in school
- Involve parents - let them know what you are planning to do and why. Show them the work the computer games generate.
- Involve your pupils - don't be afraid to get them to demonstrate how to use a console.
- Involve pupils in lesson planning - they will know the full capabilities of a console and can often come up with creative ways for learning.
- You don't need one console per child - many schools share one between 20, as children only use the console for part of the lesson.
- Make pupils aware they are not simply going to play games on the console, but use it as part of their learning.
Learning and Teaching Scotland Consolarium: www.ltscotland.org.ukconsolarium - The Scottish centre for games-based learning and innovation in education.
Derek Robinson's games blog: http:hotmilkydrink.typepad.commy_weblogconsolarium - Observations, tips and links to resources.
Ollie Bray's website: www.olliebray.com - Ideas, advice and practice on the use of computer games and ICT for learning.
Games Based Learning Conference: www.gamebased learning2010.com - Annual games-based learning conference in London. The video archive of conference sessions is worth a look.
Redbridge Games network: http:redbridge gamesnetwork.blog spot.com - Sharing good practice around games-based learning in Redbridge.
Microsoft Kodu: http:research. microsoft.comen-usprojectskodu - Free and powerful games design software for the PC and the Xbox from Microsoft Research.
Scratch: http:scratch.mit.edu - Games-making software from MIT.