Let the games begin...

As the debate rages over the value of computer games, George Cole finds a lot to learn at an exhibition dedicated to 40 years of gaming

A cultural phenomenon, a harmless pastime, a menace to society or a gateway to a new way of learning? Computer games arouse strong feelings among parents, teachers and the fans who play them. But whether you love or loathe computer games, you can't ignore them because games are played in arcades, on home computers, on consoles linked to televisions, online and even with hand-held portable devices.

The computer games industry is a multi-billion pound business employing more than 30,000 people in the UK alone. Little wonder then, that from May to September, the Barbican Centre in London hosted an exhibition on 40 years of gaming (see right). Now, the Game On exhibition is moving to Scotland, where it will be at the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) in Edinburgh from October 12 to February 3, 2003.

There are three educational strands to the Game On exhibition. The NMS is offering schools class visits (up to 33 pupils) to the Game On exhibition, at a cost of pound;2 per pupil. Sponsorship from Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) has enabled the NMS to offer schools some free educational materials. An online learning activity gives students the opportunity to design their own computer games and there is also a free videotape for schools that provides an introduction to computer games for class use. In November, free workshops will give visitors a chance to meet people who work in the computer games industry and learn about the career opportunities it offers.

The third component is a Game On Conference, organised by LTS and NMS, and sponsored by NGFL Scotland and TES Scotland. The two-day conference, held at NMS on November 20 and 21, looks at the educational potential of computer games and includes interactive activities. The speakers include Professor Angela McFarlane from the Graduate School of Education at Bristol University, who will report on a major survey on games play and its effects on learning. The survey was carried out by TEEM (Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia) and involved 800 people.

Keri Facer, head of learning research at NESTA Futurelab, will explore how playing computer games at home can encourage new forms of learning at school. Kurt Squire, a research manager at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), talks about the games-to-teach project, a partnership between MIT and Microsoft to develop conceptual prototypes of next-generation educational media. Annette MacTavish, an education officer at NMS, says: "There's a big debate on the educational potential for computer games and how you can use them to encourage learning. Games are motivating for young people and this can be exploited by teachers."

Details on Game On can be found at www.nms.ac.uk A free copy of a video on computer games for class use can be ordered by calling 0131 247 4041.

The Game On Conference costs pound;149+VAT per delegate. Go to www.LTScotland.comgameon or call 0870 100 297.

Game on

Tom Cole (aged 17) liked the Game On exhibition so much, he went twice:

"The Game On exhibition presents a truly wondrous experience to the video-game junkie, spanning two warehouse floors and tracing videogames from their earliest beginnings as minimal 2D simulations of sci-fi film scenarios (Asteroids, Defender), through to blood-splattered beat-'em-ups like Mortal Kombat and into the present day with contemporary titles such as Halo for Microsoft's Xbox console.

"The exhibition has more than 100 arcade machines and consoles arranged in a roughly chronological order, beginning with a large projection screen showing Pong, the game many believe was the equivalent of the Big Bang in the video gaming world.

"The whole exhibition feels very liberating to the rabid gamer as every machine is free once you've paid the entrance fee.

"As one progresses further, the level of sophistication in the games is staggering; the MegaDrive version of Virtua Racing sits alongside PlayStation's Ridge Racer and the differences between the two are breathtaking. Game On shows you how each new console offers games with improved graphics and playability.

"Game On addresses aspects of gaming culture that may seem alien to outsiders, such as the revolution of online gaming and the acceptance of violence in game culture. We also see how computer games are increasingly used to reinforce the impact of Hollywood movies on audiences, such as a Star Wars flight-simulation and Tron.

"The exhibition pays loving tribute to bigger titles such as the controversial Grand Theft Auto 3, which occupies an entire room to house all its merchandise, reviews and the original game plan board.

"Game On is a great chance to look at the ways computers have become an integral part of contemporary leisure, and how technology has expanded and evolved. It also presents an insider's eye view on video gaming culture and provides a glimpse into the future of computer games and technology.

"Besides all this, it's also a lot of fun to nail Abobo on Double Dragon one more timeI"

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