Game on

15th April 2011 at 01:00
This year's codebash at Dundee's Game to Learn conference was all about education, and team work, says Douglas Blane

It's like the draw for the cup final, comments teacher Phil Wootton from Larbert High, as names are chosen at random and teachers and programmers get paired up for the "codebash" that kicked off this year's Game to Learn conference in Dundee.

A codebash is a competition between teams of computer game developers, to devise a new game in a short time, explains Kenji Lamb, e-learning adviser at JISC - which was running the conference jointly with Learning and Teaching Scotland's Consolarium.

But this is a codebash with a difference. The focus is firmly on education, for a start, and the two members of each of 10 teams - a games developer and a teacher or lecturer - have not met before. Getting the right balance between fun and learning will take lots of talking.

"Educational games are often criticised for being too much education and not enough game," says Kenji. "They're boring and people don't want to play them."

But games that make players come back for more are not often educational. So putting two strangers with those different priorities together, and expecting them to create something good in 24 hours sounds unrealistic.

"Until recently it might have been," says Mr Lamb. "But we now have rapid authoring systems - like Kodu - that have already done a lot of the hard work. You'll often still want a games specialist. But it's surprising what you can do in a short time."

Seated at computers around Dundee College's learning centre, the teacher- developer pairs are getting acquainted and exploring expectations. Alan Digweed, who teaches at Haghill Park Primary, and Kraig Walker, a games development student at Abertay University, immediately seem on the same wavelength.

"I'd like a game for Primary 3s and 4s about maths," Mr Digweed says. "We could maybe have a search for treasure, with pitfalls. At that age, kids find it hard knowing left and right when you move. So could the main character have his arms marked, so they can see it's still his right arm, even in the left position, and a big nose to show the front of his face when he turns?"

"Yes, of course," Kraig replies. "Then you can have mathematical puzzles to see if they get to make a move. I think we should create it on a rectangular grid for ease of use. That also lets you have different levels with different difficulties. How many players would you want?"

The dialogue continues, getting rapidly closer to the point when Kraig will start to weave his magic and make a world. "I'm using Flash," he explains. "It takes a bit of experience, but it is powerful."

The developers "only" have to produce a working game by 10.20 the next morning. The subject specialists will write a page that explains how students use the game and what they learn from it.

All around the room, primary and secondary teachers and college and university lecturers are taking first steps with developers from a range of backgrounds. They've got Charlie Love from the Consolarium, students from Abertay University and developers from industry.

Andrew MacPherson from Learnit3D, based in Newcastle, is due back tomorrow to deliver a session at the conference. He has driven up today with his son, who is one of the developers.

The tight timescale focuses minds and forces compromise, says chemistry teacher Phil Wootton. "We are trying to turn a board and card game that I use to help teach hydrocarbons into a computer game. Pupils have to name the compound and know the formula. Alkenes have double bonds that look like ladders. Alkanes have single bonds - and `S' looks like a snake. So it's a form of snakes and ladders. The kids love it.

"But I'd like more flexibility. So if they land on a square, a question pops up and if they get the answer, it reinforces the learning. I'm hoping to learn something today about creating computer games myself. I am making progress. We're getting there. But we haven't won the cup yet." conference

Adam MacPherson of Learnit3D and Jude Nelson of John Wheatley College won the codebash prize for originality with `EpicSoft' - a game that helps computer games students learn to design games


As a former teacher and city learning centre director, Andrew MacPherson sees computer games from an educational perspective. "Using games is not rocket science. It's the technology the learners use, the language they speak," he says.

Computer games are just the hook to get them involved, explains the managing director of LearnTPM - which, with the Scottish Qualifications Authority, won the ICT education partnership award at this year's BETT.

"Working closely with subject specialists to develop a game, as they are doing in this codebash, helps you get kids to start designing games and thinking for themselves how to include the learning.

"Technology lets you take them places," Mr MacPherson says. "We've done projects from sectarianism in Northern Ireland to space science in the US."

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