Power play for the classroom

4th November 2005 at 00:00
John Galloway finds that computer games - once the scourge of parents and teachers - are promising for the curriculum, and looks at how some schools are making gameplay work on an academic level

It's time to choose. Ahead lies an enticing pathway offering new challenges. You may be wary, and need new knowledge and skills. But you need not worry, because you are not the first to take this path; others have gone before, creating the tools, answering the questions and solving the problems. They will show you the way. Now is the time to follow, to take that first step. To begin using computer games in the classroom.

Who says so? Adrian Hall for one. He is head of multimedia resources at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), which has been telling the gaming industry that in schools we are, "at a tipping point for the workforce choosing, using and re-purposing digital content". He was addressing the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association.

Some teachers are already using their products - commercial off-the-shelf computer games - in classrooms and adapting the content for curriculum subjects.

With schools spending pound;130m each year on software, the gaming industry sees a flourishing market. As for the DfES, it wants to exploit the expertise that creates engaging and motivating products. "Games developers produce high-quality stuff by throwing large quantities of money at them," says John Kirriemuir, a researcher and consultant in this field.

"They are highly motivational pieces of work: if it is too easy it becomes boring, if it is too difficult it's frustrating, doesn't sell, gets bad reviews etc. So developers have to pitch the difficulty level just right."

He believes that more commercial games will be used as teachers discover how others are using them, a process he is facilitating through his website, www.silversprite.blogspot.com.

One person who is well known for this is Tim Rylands from Chew Magna primary school near Bristol, whose innovative teaching won him a Becta ICT in Practice Award this year. Since then, he has travelled the country to spread the message. For six years his top juniors have used the Myst series of games with top juniors which, he says, have had, "a remarkable effect on behaviour and literacy, especially boys' writing. I discovered a powerful tool to develop their vocabulary. I use them with many aspects of literature. With The Hobbit we pick apart the hobbit's house without the hobbit there and ask what we can tell about it. Then we go in to Riven (a game), look at the doors and ask what's behind them? We also use games as a stimulus for music creation, generating Midi tracks. There's artwork, social and cultural learning, even the roots of the number systems."

Tim believes it is important that pupils understand the genre: "We talk about the game and its qualities, remembering that it is a game. Children are immersed in a very visually rich environment. It is my job to give them a visual language. We analyse visual images." They also make their own games using digital photos and hyperlinks in PowerPoint. It is, he says, "really complex stuff".

It's a complexity that has been yet another barrier keeping this medium out of classrooms. But may soon be in the past with the development of game-making software such as that made by Immersive Education (see panel).

It seeks to put into pupils' hands the ability to create games of the same quality as those they play at home. Funded by the Department for Trade and Industry, and researched by academics at the Institute of Education in London, it is another example of how teamwork and collaboration has encouraged games in education.

Central to such collaborations has been Nesta Futurelab. It recently launched "Teaching with Games", a project supported by Electronic Arts, one of the biggest games publishers, "to explore the issues surrounding the use of interactive computer games in schools and the changes needed to better support learning in schools across Europe."

One interest has been how to take the principles of gaming and apply them to education. Working with Lateral Visions, Nesta Futurelab created Racing Academy, a car engineering simulation where students work through four levels, altering aspects including gear ratios and tyre friction before drag racing against the computer. This game can be downloaded for free from www.nestafuturelab.org.

A similar attempt to combine gaming principles and classroom content has been produced by Oxford University Press with eQuest, designed to cover all the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) speaking and listening objectives throughout the primary school. One problem the developers have addressed is that of the time constraints of schools. Ordinarily, gamers stop playing when they have had enough; in classrooms it is determined by the bell. So this package has been built with discrete tasks throughout that can build to a larger goal, an example of a new type of classroom resource.

We may soon see more of these, either created by an industry becoming aware of the opportunities in schools, or by using software designed to let teachers and pupils do it themselves. The tools are ready, the knowledge has been gathered, the quest to bring computer games into classrooms is almost complete.

The Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association is at www.elspa.com

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