Fanboys led the way and schools should follow

7th February 2014 at 00:00

Computer games used to be curiosities. Permed Tomorrow's World presenters would demonstrate Space Invaders and Pac-Man with knowing smirks that said, "I'm not really taking this seriously." Even as the games' popularity and sophistication increased exponentially, they remained culturally marginal, dismissed as the preserve of socially challenged, acne-ridden fanboys.

No longer. In 2012, the Entertainment Retailers Association reported that UK sales of computer games had surpassed those of DVDs and other video formats for the first time. "No other sector has experienced the same explosive growth as the computer and video game industry," said Michael D Gallagher, president of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), last year.

And the stereotype of the male teenage geek has been exploded by data. ESA statistics for 2013 showed that 45 per cent of gamers were female. The Entertainment Software Rating Board, another US-based body, has put the average gamer's age as high as 34. In short, gaming is undeniably mainstream.

Education is paying attention: look at how Dundee's Abertay University is turning out game designers of the future. But it may be more difficult for gaming to get a foothold in schools, where cinema (birthdate: 1890s) has only recently been taken seriously as an area of study.

We can't afford to wait so long this time - like it or not, gaming is becoming pervasive. People may scoff at computer games and say they would never waste their time on them, but is that really true?

Most people use social media such as Facebook or Twitter and, as Charlie Brooker suggested in his documentary Videogames Changed the World last year, what else are they but games? Users construct versions of themselves - typically more opinionated (Twitter) and more relentlessly cheerful (Facebook) than in the physical world - and lead them through a bespoke virtual realm bound by their own likes and prejudices.

A little like Minecraft, the phenomenally successful online game in which players painstakingly construct new worlds with Lego-style bricks. College lecturers and teachers in Scotland and Norway have had huge success with a Minecraft challenge (see page 8) in which students try to outdo each other in creating fantastical virtual worlds.

The project - inspired by the enthusiasm for Minecraft of Derek Robertson, former national adviser in emerging technologies and learning - gives students free rein to proceed however they want, with inevitable pitfalls: a giant phallus and a temple to Satan were among the early creations.

Ultimately, however, that trust has been rewarded with some spectacular results. And the Scottish students worked entirely in their own time, for two or three weeks solid. How many other educational projects can generate such reservoirs of enthusiasm?

The lesson from the Minecraft venture is clear: don't corral gaming into narrow educational objectives. Let students lead the way.

henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk.

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