Since the beginning of time, children have learned about life through games - it's education in its most natural form. Douglas Blane looks at the future of computer games in schools
There is much debate about the potential of computer games in children's education. Some think them so violent and sexist that any lessons they teach are wholly undesirable. Others believe they must have a major role, because play is how youngsters learn about a complex world.
Games are the time-honoured vehicle for education, says computer games designer Chris Crawford: "They are the original educational technology, the natural one, having received the seal of approval of natural selection. We don't see mother lions lecturing cubs at the chalkboard. It is not games but schools that are the newfangled notion."
Play may also have a specific role especially relevant to young, 21st century humans, believes University of Colorado psychologist Marc Bekoff, who draws attention to the unpredictability of animals at play: "I see this variable sequencing as training for the unexpected - keeping animals from getting stuck in one behavioural pattern."
It follows that the skills and knowledge young people gain by playing computer games are not just vital in a world of rapidly-evolving technology, but actually more relevant to their chances of prospering than the predictable paths of school learning. Getting stuck in one behaviour pattern, some say, is exactly what teachers and educationists have already done, making them the worst possible arbiters of education for 21st century youngsters.
Unsurprisingly, many in mainstream education view this argument with scepticism, although some acknowledge that computer games can have educational benefits that conventional research struggles to demonstrate:
"Developments with technologies that host computer and video games are moving at a rapid rate, in often unpredictable directions," concedes a forthcoming report from the Bristol-based high-tech research unit Nesta Futurelab1. "This creates problems with even short-term research, where the nature of contemporary games can change significantly during the life of a research project."
The Nesta report confirms and fleshes out an impression left by last year's Game On Conference (held last year at the Royal Museum, Edinburgh) that of separate communities hurtling along diverging tracks while a few individuals try to talk to each other across a widening gulf.
Yet despite the difficulties, research on the educational impact of computer games is gaining momentum. One of the most interesting ideas to emerge, says Nesta, is that traditional "edutainment", which focuses on making learning fun and hiding the educational agenda, may be misguided.
A few examples of this type of software, such as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, have been successful. But many have failed. Games can be over-simplified, repetitive, poorly designed, limited in range or patronising - and sometimes all of the above. In addition, the model often assumes youngsters do not enjoy learning.
"Yet much research evidence contradicts this, arguing that children do enjoy learning when they have a sense of their own progression and where the learning is relevant and appropriate for them," continues the report.
Education, it seems, has taken entirely the wrong lesson from computer games. The essential feature that should be replicated in the classroom for its educational benefits is not fun but "flow" - the state of being so involved in an activity that nothing else matters.
Rather than trying to create an experience that superficially resembles leisure-based fun, says Nesta, or conceals the educational agenda, we should instead be trying to understand "the deep structures of the game-play experience that contribute to flow, and build these into environments designed to support learning."
These environments would possess a number of features that are currently absent from most children's classroom experiences: flexibility, so youngsters can match their skills with the requirements for action; good feedback and clear performance criteria, so kids can tell how well they are doing; and a broad range of challenges to provide increasingly complex information about themselves.
While recognising that the limited appeal of the schools sector to the computer games industry - small markets, possible conflicts of image, lack of hardware in schools - is a continuing barrier to progress, the Nesta report does identify two areas for cautious optimism.
Although large numbers of mainstream computer games are unlikely to appear in the classroom soon, "lite" versions adapted for education may be a promising possibility. "There is potential for the games industry to develop an attractive and low-cost solution. As the code already exists for the games, development costs should be very low," says the report.
In addition, products that improve greatly on old-fashioned edutainment are now emerging from organisations - Kar2ouche multimedia authoring, for example - that combine expertise in education with technology skills. These should displace the repetitive drill edutainment titles currently bought in large numbers by parents keen to encourage their children to stop playing games and "learn something".
"There are a growing number of examples of imaginative software whose design is informed by educational theory, practice and research," says Nesta.
1. NESTA Futurelab Series, Report 7, Computer Games and Learning, by John Kirriemuir, Ceangal and Angela McFarlane, University of Bristol. The report will be launched at BETT on January 7-8, 2004.
NESTA Futurelab was set up in 2001 by the DfES to develop innovative learning resources for a future curriculum.