The challenges inherent in computer games can inform better educational practice. That's the message from the Computer Aided Learning conference, says John Galloway
Are children in schools spending enough time playing games? Not the outdoor team variety attributed with giving us the backbone to build an empire. Nor those involving boards and pieces brought out at wet lunchtimes. But the electronic, whizz-bang, shoot-'em-ups and virtual worlds blamed for softening the brains and removing the social skills of whole tranches of world youth. That was one of the central questions addressed by academics, teachers, and industry insiders when they came together in Bristol for the biennial CAL (Computer Aided Learning) conference.
"It's about the relationship between digital technology and learning. It's not about how to use it, but why. We are about knowledge exchange," said conference chair Professor Angela McFarlane of Bristol University (see right).
So who was exchanging with whom? Among the 260 delegates from 23 countries were "all the major research groups", as well as 40 teachers sponsored to attend through bursaries from Microsoft's "Partners in Learning" programme, all ready to discuss 160 papers over the three days. It is a "small but influential conference", says McFarlane.
One of the papers was about DoomEd, presented by Karl Royle from University of Wolverhampton, a game developed in conjunction with David Squires, a research fellow at Bristol as well as a commercial developer. They began the project to explore the question: "Is it possible that a game can teach us something and still be a game?" They believe the answer is "yes" and in order to prove it built the game.
DoomEd is, in the language of gaming, a first-person shoot-'em-up, which is just as it sounds. Players navigate a hostile environment, in this case the London Underground during the Second World War, killing aliens. Although they needed to learn some history, the main focus of the game was radiation and chemical composition in KS4 chemistry. Only with accurate knowledge could they neutralise the noxious obstacles before them, negotiate the tunnels and obliterate the invaders. Otherwise the players died. There were many ways they could die, an essential component according to James Paul Gee, a keynote speaker from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Failure plays a massively important part in games. If they won straight away they would return the box."
Gee opened the conference in conversation with Henry Jenkins from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, between them making the case for games in education and dispelling some of the arguments against, pointing out that players often collaborate or share the experience watching and advising each other, that they are "engaging" rather than "fun", and that even violent games can offer "an ethical playground where I explore the ethics of my life".
The conference wasn't just about games on computers but also games with computers and even games without computers. As well as using simulated environments on a whiteboard.
NESTA Futurelab held trials at six Bristol schools, with pupils playing African wildlife simulation Savannah. One group remained in the classroom while the other roamed free using handheld devices with global positioning systems.
Both games involved role-playing, but one required more imaginative and creative thinking than the other as the pupils became lions and their playing fields an African habitat.
"Is it possible to learn about the challenges and experiences of animals through having to face the same challenges they face?" asked Keri Facer of NESTA Futurelab.
The answer was a resounding yes. The pupil lions had to spray their boundaries, hunt for food, find water and avoid Masai warriors. When they attacked an elephant, the six of them came off worse. Over three hours, representing one year on the savannah, they not only learned a lot about lions but also to develop some simple rules: only hunt big animals as a group, although small ones can be killed alone; avoid obvious risks; don't waste energy; and drink a lot. All sound lion behaviour, according to the experts involved.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison held trials of its own with high-school students who were occupied in a more true-to-life, although just as challenging, activity. The university's David Shaffer believes in offering pupils insights into real professions by creating a practicum - that is, a framework of the needs, abilities and skills of the role, and presenting them with realistic challenges.
One such exercise involved pupils becoming mediators and exploring the issues around xenotransplantation - using animal organs in humans. Through such games, "We can build 'frames' that give kids a range of 'glasses' they try on to see the world in different ways," he believes.
Many of the games discussed have been developed for science teaching.
Perhaps the characteristics of gaming and of scientific investigation are similar - an idea underpinned by Wisconsin-Madison's Gee who suggests the development of the periodic table was a like a game: "What was the pattern? What were the rules? What could fit in where?"
He also drew parallels between this and the discipline required to master Pokemon, with its 16 groups, up to 10 skills and three evolutions - a considerably bigger system than the 44 phonemes and 26 letters of the English language.
Science also featured strongly in the simulations discussed. You may well wonder what the difference is between a simulation and a game. Gee defines it thus: "A game is if something is at stake. Otherwise it's a simulation."
It could be argued that life itself is at stake when using Biologica - as package developed by the Concord Consortium in Massachusetts that allows students to experiment with genetics. Meanwhile JeLSIM, developed by Ruth Thomas and colleagues at Heriot-Watt University, enables students to conduct science experiments in real time on computers, mixing chemicals, watching reactions, measuring, recording and writing up. There are even glitches being built in to replicate problems in actual laboratories. It's all part of making the experience more realistic.
David Squires believes realism is a key component of any game. "It only works when it is natural and the content is intrinsic to the game play. If you try and force something - a subject or a learning outcome - into a topic and it doesn't fit, it won't feel like a game."
Facts and information needed to win have to be embedded, he says. "The art is to get content built into context. The easy way to do it is to get a box that pops up. The harder way is to give the information in fragments, for example posters on the wall."
Mistakes result in death and the desire to try again - termed "a pleasantly frustrating experience" by Gee. Conversely success is not rewarded by bells and whistles, but by getting to the next level and beginning the process again. "The more explicit the reward the more educational it feels," explains David.
So, is this the collapse of school? "No," says Karl Royle. "Just a beautiful opportunity to create a new tool for teaching."
Games aren't going to take over, says MIT's Jenkins: "Educational games work best in a learning context where there are other kinds of activities going on." However, until teachers embrace them and bring them into the classroom he also believes that "schools are locking themselves out of probably the most powerful learning technology of our time".
The challenge is to make education as engaging as games, "Imagine," he says, "the day kids go into an algebra class and say it is too short and too easy."
* For information about the work of Henry Jenkins and colleagues visit www.educationarcade.org.
* Examples of games for education can be found at www.nestafuturelab.org or David Squires' site at www.desq.co.uk and there are free downloads of Science simulation software at: www.concord.org and www.jelsim.org
* More educational research at:http:labweb.education.wisc.eduroom130
* The ICT in Schools division of the Department for Education and Skills is understood to be working with games companies to develop educational software. Information and enquiries at www.teachernet.gov.ukwholeschoolictis