On a mission to make gaming a viable learning tool

John Galloway

Games have been with us since the computer went personal. In the early days of the BBC Micro and the ZX Spectrum, you could buy magazines full of code to type on to the mono screen, copy back to a tape recorder then gasp in wonder as you guided a stickman skier zig-zagging down a mountain avoiding chevron-shaped, pixellated trees.

Then, as machines became more sophisticated, so did the games, and they were largely left to the professionals and those keen enough to use the tools available to modify them. Creating games moved beyond the reach of mere users and became the domain of the expert or the geeks - those lank-haired, pale-skinned young men who really ought to get out a bit more.

That was until Immersive Education came along with an ambitious goal, as Jeff Woyda, chief operating officer, puts it, "to let pupils quickly create something that would be inaccessible without an application like this," while at the same time, "power users can get it to do pretty much anything they want it to." It is an aim the company has very impressively met with the game-making software Mission Zone.

Program users are presented with an on-screen grid and a bank of 3D environments, literally tiles across the top of the screen, with which to build the setting. These are dragged and dropped, then turned to align their openings - a baronial hall here, a western street there and a sewage tunnel in between, perhaps. A further click and a virtual world is ready to be explored.

And what a world it is. An inviting three-dimensional, 360-degree place of rich and inspiring detail that can be easily edited and expanded. Props (static and animated) special effects, items to collect, doors to open and characters to encounter are all ready to be added with a simple click, every one of which can be made to appear or disappear, help or hinder, thwart or support, just like in the real thing.

All of these variables mean this process could become a complex one, but just as one of the motivating factors when playing games is meeting a challenge, so it is when creating them. There is a need to apply logic, to choose the controls and triggers carefully to make things happen just as they should. But this is little different to any other form of programming, as with LOGO or Robolab, just in a different environment. Will a door open when approached, when clicked or when a character is carrying the right object? What will open the chest so that the treasure can be retrieved? Any number of parameters can be brought to bear, from a simple click to answering a question correctly.

Other features enable students to include their own images, sounds and video, so that they can create narratives, quests and prompts for players.

This could be creating one for course work or for teachers to deliver subjects in new ways; solving algebraic expressions to open a door, for instance, or solving clues given by characters who only speak French.

As with video just a short while ago, computer games are becoming part of the timetable and this is the tool to make that possible. It gives us the opportunity to change the way we teach and what we teach.

Mission Zone launches next spring. www.immersiveeducation.com

John Galloway is advisory teacher for ICTSEN and Inclusion for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets

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