They are derided as symbols of a destructive, dumbed-down culture that diverts children from the path of learning. But could computer games be the classroom resource of the future? Wendy Wallace reports
This term, Year 7 students at a school in the West Country will be playing computer games. Yes, of course, you say, 12-year-olds are mad about computer games. But this is different. These pupils will be playing in school, in class, in lesson time. And instead of telling them off, or confiscating their consoles, their teachers will be encouraging them.
Because while the pupils think they are just playing they will also be learning, according to Dan Thomas, a teacher at their school, John Cabot city technology college in Bristol.
Knights of Honour, a strategy game in which players compete to build medieval kingdoms, can promote teamwork and help children analyse decision-making processes, says Mr Thomas. As a spin-off, his pupils will design virtual castles, using another piece of software.
Dan Thomas, 26, is a member of the so-called "Nintendo generation" of teachers. He enjoys games himself, and has a PlayStation at home. "Schools have got to keep finding hooks to bring students into the lesson. Computer games are one way of doing that," he says.
John Cabot CTC is taking part in a year-long pilot project run by the technology-in-schools initiative Nesta Futurelab, looking at the possible application of commercial computer games in learning. Unfazed by the new technologies, and working in a school where in Year 7 the national curriculum has been suspended in favour of a set of competencies, Dan Thomas is well placed to bridge the gap between what children are likely to have been doing in the holidays and the work they will tackle at school.
Whether your pupils are seven-year-olds or 17-year-olds, the chances are that over the Christmas holiday they were playing computer games. It's a massive business; the UK market for hardware, software and associated devices has topped pound;3 billion in each of the past three years. Games are played by girls and boys, by adults and children - but teenage males are the core enthusiasts. Almost four out of five play regularly and the average male game-player aged 10 to 15 spends more than 14 hours a week on games, according to the independent research company GameVision. The average age games player is in his or her mid-20s. While some young people play occasionally, others spend almost every waking hour on their consoles (see box).
Despite the huge investment in ICT made by schools and government over recent years, few pupils will experience much crossover between the use they make of new technologies out of school - playing games, chatting with friends on instant messenger services, downloading films and music or making their own - and what is on offer in school. "For many children, games are the key point of entry to the world of computers. Yet that is barely acknowledged in school at all," says Professor David Buckingham of London University's Institute of Education.
Games designed specifically for use in schools tend to be unexciting compared with their heavily funded commercial counterparts. But mass-market games, with their violent and sexist content, can be difficult to incorporate into the classroom. In the best-selling Grand Theft Auto, for instance, the muscular hero guns down drug dealers and has occasional sex with prostitutes. The game has fuelled a minor moral panic, its tongue-in-cheek quality lost on many commentators. Even in games rated suitable for children, the content can appear vacuous. Characters - avatars, in game parlance - often simply move from level to level, bursting bombs and collecting baubles.
Research carried out in 2001 by Becta, the Government's educational technology agency, found that while games such as The Sims were motivating and promoted collaboration and discussion in the classroom, pupils got too engrossed in them and tended to lose sight of their "learning objectives".
All the games demand considerable play-time before they yield up any of their secrets or rewards; this is incompatible with 50-minute lessons.
Teachers also reported technical problems; computer games are memory-hungry and require high-spec machines. But as the games market continues to burgeon, some educationists are taking a fresh look at their potential application in schools.
Blamed for everything from stunting social interaction to contributing to the obesity epidemic, the one thing games have been traditionally credited with is improving children's handeye co-ordination. But this may be the least of their benefits, according to a new wave of commentators, who say that the educational potential of computer games lies not in their content, or the dexterity needed to play them, but in the way they exercise the brain.
"Games are fiendishly, sometimes maddeningly, hard," points out Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You:How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter (Book of the Week, Friday, May 20 2005). Mr Johnson believes that when children play computer games - probing the logic of the game, getting results by trial and error, following hunches, failing and trying again - they are learning the basic procedure of scientific investigation. Others point out that games foster the characteristics of personalised learning; students work through them at their own pace, determining their own goals and strategies, calling on others - in the form of magazines and specialist chat room forums - for advice and input when they need it.
Primary school teacher Tim Rylands, 43, has for years been using the Myst series of games to promote literacy with his junior pupils. He introduced the fantasy games - which he describes as full of "awe and wonder, rather than shock and horror" - while working in a school serving a socially deprived community in Weston-Super-Mare in Somerset. "I was trying to broaden the experiences of a group of children who didn't get out very often. Myst grabbed me, and I thought if I was talking about it, they could too." He says a normally recalcitrant class gathered round a small monitor "completely transfixed" and then did excellent work inspired by the game.
The boys' writing was particularly impressive.
Mr Rylands now uses the game, as well as other forms of new technologies, with his Year 5 and 6 pupils at Chew Magna school, near Bristol. His innovative teaching won him a Becta ICT in Practice award last year. In six years, he has had no negative feedback from pupils, colleagues or parents, he says. As well as using Myst's "immersive, inspiring landscapes" to foster children's speaking and writing, he encourages them to look critically at how the games are made. This kind of learning is not yet in any QCA scheme of work, but, says Mr Rylands, "we are trying to prepare children for a world that we don't have a clue about, where visual media will become accessible to all, where blogs will be normal. Children need to develop visual literacy skills."
For some, that learning can only take place at school. Charles Edward Brooke girls' school in the south London borough of Lambeth was one of the first schools in the country to specialise in media arts, but assistant head Linda Mann estimates that around half the girls in her media studies GCSE class do not have computers at home. But despite this "digital divide", Linda Mann says her students "find media very interesting and motivating". Computer rooms at the well-equipped school (which is sponsored by the global media corporation WPP) are always packed and the school offers Saturday classes for the community in PowerPoint and Photoshop.
Girls at the school have been working with academics from the Institute of Education and games company Immersive Education trialling software that enables students to make their own interactive computer games. Year 10 students, now in the third year of the pilot, express enthusiasm for the Mission Zone package. Initially, they say, the software was "babyish" and only allowed students to "pick a character, pick a weapon and play". Now, says 14-year-old Myrtle Walker: "You have to write the game, the rules, develop the characters. You get to express how imaginative you can be."
"You have to use logic," adds Puisy Luong, 14. "You can't just do whatever you want."
The purpose of the software, says Caroline Pelletier, manager of the Making Games project based at the Institute of Education, is to develop students'
creative capacities and give them a critical take on how and in what commercial context games are constructed. The programme may help students who struggle with traditional literacy skills to shine, she says. "It is a completely different way of constructing a text, and draws on completely different skills. Early indications are that it could be very useful."
Degree courses in computer game-making have proliferated in recent years.
Adrian Joseph, head of media at Charles Edward Brooke school, believes there is a place for this area of study in schools. "You're making stories, but it's 3D and not a linear plan. It requires high-end skills. Students are always at the cutting edge; they've got fresh ideas. Our role as teachers is to put those ideas into a reasonable framework."
To stay relevant to children's lives, schools have to engage with their leisure pursuits, even if some of them appear unpalatable at first glance.
"Schools need to have a mature discussion around that with kids, rather than thinking they can protect them by keeping it away from them while they are in school," says David Buckingham. "Otherwise we are putting our heads in the sand."
The games industry is working with the DfES to ensure that parents and teachers are clear about age ratings. Details at: www.askaboutgames.com.Games and Learning - an overview is available at www.nestafuturelab.org. For more on games and learning, see author Marc Prensky's website: www.marcprensky.com. Tim Rylands is speaking at next week's Bett show at Olympia, London. Details: www.bettshow.co.uk; www.timrylands.co.uk.Everything Bad is Good for You, by Steven Johnson, Allen Lane, pound;10.00
'Teachers thought it was a wicked evil'
"Jamie", aged 18, is a keen gamer who spends hundreds of hours playing multi-player online games. Now on a gap year, he missed the grades he needed to take up his place at Cambridge; it is a moot point whether his passion for computer games was a contributing factor. Certainly, teachers at his private boarding school did not share his enthusiasm for Counter Strike and World of Warcraft.
"The most reactionary teachers thought it was a wicked evil, turning children into killing machines. Others just thought it was a waste of time.
My housemaster wondered why it interested me, but he missed the point.
People don't play World of Warcraft because they want to be elves; they play it because it is another form of competition." World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game with 4.5 million players worldwide.
"There is the cliche of the lonely nerd in his room, but people play online games because they want to play with others. MMOs are inherently social. All of the endgame goals can only be achieved with other people, working as a team. Co-operation is rewarded. And if you don't think about strategy, you will fail.
"Most of the critics of computer gaming are over 40; the demographic that plays the least games. I could sit my parents down in front of a game and they wouldn't know where to start. My father spent two years calling the PlayStation the "Play Boy".
"Gaming was not connected with my exam results. If you lack motivation, you will always find other ways of spending your time rather than working. It is not 'school work versus computer games'. It is 'school work versus other forms of wasting time'. If I didn't have a computer, I would have been sitting in other people's rooms talking rubbish."
Future in their hands
The city of Wolverhampton is capitalising on children's love of new technology with a pilot scheme called Learning to Go. Under the initiative, which wins a Becta ICT in Practice award next week, 1,000 Year 5 and 6 pupils in 18 schools are using handheld personal digital assistants.
The devices - which look like a cross between a mobile phone and an iPod - have built-in still and video cameras, a sound recorder and wireless broadband connection, and can run most software applications. Children use them to read e-books on screen, animate science principles such as plant growth or water evaporation, and play a maths game called "Radius of the Lost Ark".
Pupils have adopted the pound;300 devices enthusiastically and use them in the classroom, the playground and at home for "plearning" - a cross between play and learning. They will be demonstrating on the DfES stand at next week's Bett show.
The Wolverhampton pilot grew out of a desire to provide children with more equal access to computers. It has developed into something much bigger, with teachers reporting that the devices are unlocking huge potential in their pupils. "We are tapping directly into their culture and their ability to use technology," says Dave Whyley, Wolverhampton's headteacher ICT consultant. "The reason we have been successful is that we have listened to the learners."