Computer games-based learning may be a step too far for some, but a national games centre aims to prove them wrong
Advocates of computer games in education are fond of quoting a line from the long-running cartoon series Peanuts: "Try not to have a good time ... this is supposed to be educational."
The fact that learning rarely takes place in the absence of enjoyment is now widely recognised. But computer games are still seen as a step too far by some, who deplore the violence and misogyny in many of the most popular. The new draft outcomes on technologies for the Curriculum for Excellence, which has a whole section on games-based learning, show their argument has largely been lost, in Scotland at least. A major influence has been the work of the Consolarium.
Based in Dundee and set up two years ago by Learning and Teaching Scotland, the national centre of excellence in games-based learning is directed by former primary teacher and education lecturer Derek Robertson. "We are working with teachers across Scotland, and I'm starting to get enquiries from south of the border, where they don't have anything similar."
Besides giving teachers advice, access to research, and opportunities to explore the educational potential of computer games, the Consolarium also provides resources and support for a variety of classroom projects. Among the most innovative and - judging by the new outcomes - influential are those in which learners don't just play the games but also design their own.
"What I like about this course is the way it builds their confidence and ability to help each other," says Peter Liddle, computing studies teacher at St Columba's High, Dunfermline - where Curriculum for Excellence options in first year now include eight weeks of computer games design. Rather than attacking them with content, which you do at Standard grade, you're talking to them about how to develop things, how to design them.
"Primary 7s tend to be really confident. But pupils at the end of first year at secondary school are often not confident at all. If you're being assessed all the time, you tend not to raise your head above the parapet and admit that you're struggling. It's a lot different in this class. They talk to each other. They help each other out."
The way in which games-based learning can develop the Curriculum for Excellence capacities is examined on the Consolarium's website. The collaboration highlighted by Mr Liddle is a key aspect, since it supports the growth of confidence within a learning community of shared interests and enthusiasm.
Context is also a key factor in developing confident individuals and successful learners, says Derek Robertson. "We need to be aware of the cultural relevance of what we present to learners, to bridge the gap between what happens in school and outside it. We have to make school a place that kids want to be. We need it to resonate with their own experience."
Once that experience was about bikes, dolls and football. Nowadays, dungeons, dragons and fantasy feature more. These are nothing like normal learning, say the youngsters - and some of them are perceptive enough to see beyond the fun.
"You get to create your own levels, weapons and characters," says Sean Hutchison, an S1 pupil. "It's better than sitting there writing all day, or just listening to the teacher. But it's not just about playing games. You are learning how to use the computer and how to create things. It gives you more imagination."
The Consolarium has evaluated and introduced a number of computer games to Scotland's schools. These include Missionmaker, Thinking Worlds, Gamemaker and Neverwinter Nights - the one used in St Columba's High since the start of this session.
A fantasy role-play game from Bioware, Neverwinter Nights is a commercial product that was not designed for the education market. This is a source of strengths and weaknesses, says Derek Robertson. "The kids have tolerated the kind of edutainment - education software - that we've had in schools for years. Commercial products like this are what they play with at home. The quality of these is what they expect. These games offer challenge and romance. They have fantastic graphics. So they'll persevere with the fact that the design interface is not aimed at them and takes a little time to learn."
One of the most widespread comments from teachers tackling ICT projects for the first time - and even from more experienced practitioners - concerns the need to revise upwards their estimates of what children can do at a particular age.
Given the opportunity, young pupils constantly surprise their teachers with keen insights, mature judgment and creative contributions. Educational games design in its current classroom form illustrates this well, says Mr Liddle. "I've been surprised by how their engagement with the game makes them stick at tasks that are quite difficult.
Contact with games-based learning researchers at Heriot-Watt University has lent additional insights into the connection between complexity and pupil engagement, he says. "Judy Robertson is developing a customised version of this game specifically for schools. The designer of the interface was talking about having really big buttons to make it easier for the kids."
But teachers at the meeting said this was neither necessary nor desirable. "It was taking away a challenge present to kids every day on webpages and computer applications. It patronises them. It assumes they're less capable than they are."
Making the task too easy would detract from the experience for some of the first-year pupils at St Columba High. "It is harder to design a game than to play it," says Fibro Pasquin. "But that's what I like about it - the challenge."
But there is challenging and then there's downright frustrating, points out Callum Whitaker. "You have to make all the doors work right and all the stuff work together. If you don't do all that, the whole game just doesn't work. You are learning more when you're designing, but it's not as much fun. I don't fancy being a games designer. I'd rather be a football player."
The potential impact of the new technologies outcomes on future careers - and on the economy - is emphasised in the Scottish Government publicity: "Pupils will use software to create their own games in a move which it is hoped will create dynamic young programmers of the future, who will ensure the continued success of Scotland's games industry."
It's a sequence that is not assured, says Heriot-Watt's Judy Robertson, who is still pondering the new technologies outcomes. "There is a lot of great stuff about pupils using technology to produce their own creative content. But there's not so much on teaching children basic underlying concepts which would enable them to make software instead of just using it. From the looks of it, the intended progression is from making games to learning underlying programming skills."
This is a plausible sequence, says Peter Liddle. "They're trying to encourage young people through more creative methods of programming - rather than sitting them in front of a text-based programme like Basic, which is what we do now. None of the programming languages people use now are text-based. So you're trying to teach programming in a language no one uses, that kids don't like or understand."
Not all the pupils who learn to design computer games in school will want to develop their skills further, says Derek Robertson. But some will. "If you give them the abstract stuff too early, it turns them off. But teach them concrete things that appeal to them and some will want to move on to more complex, abstract programming languages. If they see a relevance and purpose, it creates a base from which they can grow."
It's a progression that is already happening at St Columba's. "I really enjoyed the games design course," says Mathew Heron, also in the first year. The hardest part was playing games other people made, because you didn't know where the traps were. So you fell into them.
"After the course we made our own websites. It was something like the same kind of thinking. What I want to learn now is how to make a website for a business."
In terms of a future career, computing looks more likely, Mathew says, than his other option before taking the games design course - which was acting. "We had to choose between the computing course or expressive arts. But you have to sing and everything with expressive arts. So I chose computing."
Derek Robertson will speak on 'Scotland's got game: How Scotland has embraced games based learning', at the Scottish Learning Festival in September
ON A QUEST
One of the illustrative video clips on the Consolarium website contains wise words from a teacher who has just tried games design for the first time: "If you make too many monsters, you just get killed."
Mark Liszka, a first-year pupil at St Columba's High, absorbed such basic principles early in the course and is now using the design options in Neverwinter Nights (pictured) to express his creativity and subvert a player's expectations.
"Here's the good bit," he says, indicating a vicious-looking individual lurking in a gloomy cavern. "You see a zombie like that, he's obviously going to come up and kill you. But I can make him a Defender and I can change his strength and all these other things."
Almost too fast to follow, Mark sets a succession of the zombie's attributes - dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, charisma - up to maximum, and looks pleased with himself.
"This is really cool. Now he'll just stand around there until I come in. But then he'll fight to defend me against the other monsters. You can take the worst nightmare creature and make him a good guy."
The hero of this game is on a quest for a silver dragon, which he learned about during a conversation, scripted by Mark, with a friendly, chatty polar bear up on the icy surface of the world he has just created.
While young people enjoy playing and designing games, the educational strength of many of them is this kind of narrative drive, says Derek Robertson: "There's a plot. There are characters. There is dialogue.
"The kids create a mission which gradually unfolds through talking to the different characters they meet. They come up with all that themselves. It is all about literacy. But they don't even notice that."