Everyone knows that most children, and a growing number of adults, like to play computer games. Anyone who has looked into this will also know that such games, despite the usual tale told in the popular media, are many and varied and not restricted to the first-person shooter genre. Since games can induce such high levels of engagement in players, there has been much speculation about whether they could be harnessed for traditional learning.
The recent book from James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning, goes into this is great depth, and the recent review from Nesta Futurelab (www.nestafuturelab.org) gives an overview of the possible relationships between games and learning.
In May, the Education Arcade (www.educationarcade.org) arranged a two-day event in Los Angeles to look at games and learning. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wisconsin University are behind Education Arcade, and both have done pioneering work. So it was not surprising that people like Will Wright, inventor of SimCity, contributed to the conference. (See www.watercoolergames.org archives000145.shtml) As a firm believer in production rather than consumption as a useful learning activity, what interests me is how building your own game might become an educational activity. The research of Microsoft's Steven Drucker gave a very interesting summary of ways this might work. (Thanks here to Ian Bogost from Water Cooler Games, who kept better notes than I did.) Game "modding" (modifying) can get you a long way without specialist programming. Games such as Half-Life, Unreal, Dungeon Siege, Baldur's Gate and many others offer modding support. This allows you to make significant changes to the game setting, characters and rules. There is great online community support, with players swapping modifications. The Ghost Writer project from Judy Robertson and colleagues at ICCS Edinburgh shows just how far this can take you.
If game development is viewed as a full-scale programming activity, languages like Lisp and Smalltalk are useful tools - as are Flash, Director and Disney's Panda, which is open-source. These allow rapid amateur development but they require specialist knowledge and really only come into their own with the gifted post-16 student or computer science undergraduate.
Game engines are another option. Engines can accelerate development and offer a great deal of automation, but they require significant expertise. A new project from Immersive (makers of Kar2ouche) promises a games development tool that may help bring this activity within reach of schools.
Small downloadable games and mobile games are alternative platforms for amateur developers. These don't need the same kind of polish, but you need to start development from scratch. You need specific domain expertise and are subject to varying standards (for example, mobile devices).
But no matter how good the development environment, the key to a good game is the design of its strategy. If that is right, then the graphics do not have to be that spectacular to engage your friends at least. And if you subscribe to the notion that radio has the best pictures, you will see how the flights of imagination associated with text-based games could be more fun than even the best graphics. So maybe the first step is to consider the creative challenge of game design, perhaps as part of a creative writing activity for keen gamers.
Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol