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Playing the learning game

Angela McFarlane reports from Los Angeles how schools may benefit from computer game companies' desire to broaden their appeal

It's official - the digital games market is not as big as Hollywood... not yet. But it does take $28 million in revenue each year and has ambitions to challenge film and TV for our spare time, and cash. In order to continue to grow the market, games designers need to start thinking about broadening their audiences, and Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) opened the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles on May 18 with an analysis of where the industry needs to head.

E3 is the annual trade event where the world's games companies gather to show each other their wares. Lowenstein called for broadening of the genres of games, to cater for audiences that are currently beyond the demographic of game users, and made an interesting comparison with the unexpected blockbuster film, The Passion of the Christ. This was the third biggest box office hit globally and dealt with ideas and materials that are outside the normal realm of Hollywood hits. He called for games that can resonate with people's ideas, beliefs and emotions in the way the film did; games that leave you moved, and that stay with you, just as a great novel might do.

Lowenstein's words echoed those of Peter Molyneux of Lionhead Studios in his keynote to the Education Arcade conference that precedes E3. Lionhead is perhaps best known for the game Black and White, which was the first to introduce significant morality into a world-building game in the genre known as "god games". This game is now used in media studies courses in the UK at GCSE level, and is the first to be included in mainstream studies in schools. So perhaps a focus on such games with significant cultural and moral content will mean a growth of titles that can move more easily into the classroom.

The key will be to keep the game-play quality, something that has proved elusive when designers start to produce games that are intended for education and training. With development costs ranging between $10 million and $20 million for a major game, the big developers are not looking to make products primarily for the education. However, Black and White is not the only game developed purely for the entertainment market that has found its way into schools. The most obvious examples are Civilization (Firaxis), now in its fourth version, launched at E3, and The Sims. Teachers presenting at Education Arcade told of the use of these games to create challenges for their students in history and second-language learning. They showed examples of work that moved students beyond somewhat passive involvement with content to an engagement with ideas in a complex environment that offers dynamic interaction with the learner.

Taking games into the classroom is difficult though, not least because the games themselves are hard to play. The teachers who presented at Education Arcade are gamers who have looked for ways to use the engaging nature of games to enhance their teaching. This is a big step for non-gamers. To become competent with complex games takes hours of work before you are likely to begin to see any useful links to classroom use. Muzzy Lane is trying to make things easier with the game Making History, which starts with British history but presumably from the US perspective - interesting in itself. Making History promises to combine the complexity and quality of the mainstream gaming experience with features that are very teacher friendly. These include feedback to the teacher on student progress and an architecture that "makes the underlying models of game behaviour visible and accessible to the instructor".

If you are going to use a game in the classroom you need to know the rules that are in operation in order to design and manage the tasks you need to build around it. This last point is pivotal, as all the teachers pointed out. Just leaving the students to play games does not lead to school-relevant learning. For that to happen the teacher has to manage the use of the game, and structure the discussion, analysis and knowledge-building that goes on around it. How you use a game in the classroom is the key to its learning impact.

As well as creating games with cultural credibility, both Lowenstein and Molyneux talked about the importance of connection and community. Online aspects of gaming culture are huge. This is not just about the tens of thousands of people who play online games, but those who use game-related websites to talk about their gaming experiences.

Many even exchange versions of the games they produce themselves using the software now commonly shipped with games to create new elements through a process known as "modding". Indeed, online exchange of assets from games, artefacts or even characters, is a significant business.

However, most online gaming does not involve these complex online role-play style games. According to the ESA survey data released at E3, nearly 60 per cent of online gamers play puzzle, game-show, card and trivia-type games.

Also, over 40 per cent of these players are women. Less than 10 per cent play in the multi-player universes. In fact, there is a lot of overlap between the games most people play online and those available on phones.

This year, for the first time, E3 had a wireless zone, with phone-based games being the main feature. iFone, a British company, launched Lemmings for mobiles at E3, after the European launch, reflecting the fact that this market in the US is a little behind Europe and Japan. A seminar devoted to learning from this difference did not attract a huge audience, but did showcase some interesting developments.

Although most of the games in this market are attempting to do what consoles do, there are some innovative ideas that make use of the phone connectivity. One example from Norway involves users texting in their lyrics to a rap tune, then seeing them performed on a video viewed on a 3G phone. This brings the notion of audience to phones, in the way that the web did, and if the popularity of fan fiction is anything to go by, will offer a vehicle for the creative expression of ideas and performances related to topics that are highly culturally significant to young people, namely games and music.

The gaming industry has woken up to the fact that people do not like to play alone. Multiplayer games in every form were everywhere at E3, from the familiar consoles with multiple handsets, to turn-taking games on a mobile phone where your opponent may be standing next to you or on the other side of the world.

The new generation of handheld consoles all have communications capability, and the use of VoIP (voice over internet protocol) on the Nintendo DS so that players can talk through their collaborative game play in real time was especially impressive. It is perhaps this element that poses the greatest challenge to education.

The models of learning that operate in these gaming communities are powerful. Moreover, they are very relevant to working and learning in a world increasingly about networks and individuals who bring value to a co-operative enterprise. If we persist in giving credit only for what individuals can do alone in the school system, it may be that the most relevant experiences school leavers have to offer will be provided by gaming.


* Education Arcade

* Entertainment Software Association

* iFone

* Lionhead Studios

* Muzzy Lane Making History

* For more examples of use of games in the classroom, and to offer your own examples, contact John Kirriemuir

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