Teachers' knowledge of the curriculum is far more important than their joy-stick skills if they want to make computer games a successful part of lessons, according to Futurelab, an educational technology research centre in Bristol. It has overseen a year-long project in which four schools used commercial games with classes.
Their report explores the problems teachers experience, as well as the successes, and states that computer games are not a "magic bullet" for engaging children.
The teachers' own game-playing abilities appeared to be unimportant. "While teachers needed a certain level of familiarity with a game to be able to use it in their teaching, achieving educational objectives was more dependent upon a teacher's knowledge of the curriculum than it was on their ability with the game," it said.
Mistakes by teachers included that they often overestimated their pupils'
game-playing skills, possibly because of widespread assumptions that children have a natural affinity with computers.
Even pupils who claimed to be games experts often failed in tasks set in class. Among the games was The Sims 2, in which players create characters then guide them through their lives. "One session ended with the death from starvation of two Sims, with their baby taken into care," the report said.
"Fine material for the journalism exercise being undertaken by the rest of the class, but embarasssing for the 'expert' pupil in front."
Technical difficulties faced by the schools included a lack of save-points in games, making it frustrating for pupils to resume projects, and problems loading software.
The report said that, although the researchers did not condone it, they understood why some technical staff had been tempted to use illegally hacked versions of the games which could be downloaded from the internet.
Another sign of the growing acceptance of computer games in schools was a report this week written by the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association, a trade body for games-makers, and the personalised learning team at the Department for Education and Skills. It suggested that games benefit collaboration, lateral thinking, problem-solving and teamwork.
Teaching with games is at www.futurelab.org.uk Unlimited learning is at www.elspa.com
TIPS FOR CLASSROOM GAMING
* Work out what your learning objectives are and be realistic about how the game can help.
* You do not need to use all of a game - just aspects which are relevant.
* Set aside time for discussion and reflection on the game-based activities, as well as contingency time for technical problems.
* Allow time for you and your students to become familiar with the game, which may be longer than you expect.
* Be aware that pupils who think they are gaming experts may still have difficulties.