Computer games are big business these days. Their development requires imagination, enterprise and technological know-how.
First, there's the choice of theme, storyline and plot to consider, then the construction of an engaging 3D background - it could be lush mountains, arid desert, or an idyllic island setting. Next come the characters, the brave heroes and despicable villains which dictate the choice of background lighting and atmosphere. Then the game rules have to be set out, directing the user to increasingly difficult levels.
These exciting developments are not only taking place in the high-tech businesses around Scotland, but in secondary schools as well.
Thanks to a group of teachers led by Julie McLaren of Madras College in Fife, classes are being encouraged to develop a range of new computer games. In response to increasing demand from pupils wanting to design games, the teachers approached the Scottish Qualifications Authority to explore the idea of a suitable course and qualification.
The National Progression Awards in computer games development were validated in May. The course was designed to improve the current SQA provision at SCQF levels 4, 5 and 6, and to provide progression to HNC and HND courses.
Interactive computer games are increasingly used in leisure, education and work-based training, and Scotland is recognised as a global leader in the field. More than 50 Scottish firms are seeking candidates with the critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills this new course sets out to develop. In particular, they want people with competencies in design, animation and programming.
"The course is not about playing computer games in the classroom - it's about writing software and developing new games. It will deliver a number of outcomes related to Curriculum for Excellence, and develop pupils' entrepreneurial, enterprise, creative and communication skills," says Bobby Elliott, SQA qualifications manager for computing.
"The study of computing is a markedly male-dominated area, with the gender imbalance more pronounced as we move from Standard grade to Higher, and on into further education and training. We hope the new NPAs in computer games development will go some way to redressing the balance, and encouraging more women into computing courses."
Ms McLaren and her colleagues had noted a decline in the number of pupils choosing computing, but this NPA has a very distinctive vocational dimension to it, she says. "It attracts pupils who are interested in pursuing a career in computer games design, but - very interestingly - it is also proving popular with senior students who intend to follow academic courses at university but want to balance their school studies by including a course which is interesting and motivating in a practical and social sense."
It gives youngsters a valuable insight into the technology behind computer games design and helps develop "important competencies in such beneficial areas as marketing, advertising and enterprise," she says.
It can also motivate pupils and develop their confidence, self-esteem and personal initiative, according to Kate Farrell, of Edinburgh City Council. "I've certainly noticed that some pupils seem to come out of their shells. Young people can learn a great deal and improve their own personal development, simply by having fun in the classroom."
Richard Scott, principal teacher of computing at Buckhaven High in Fife, agrees. "The new NPA course was never intended to be a replacement for Higher grade computing," he says. "It is a learner-centred, practical and vocational course that appeals to a wide range of young people, and one that now has a formal qualification attached to it, which articulates very well with other progression routes."
Learning and Teaching Scotland is working with pilot schools to develop computer games design skills. They are supported by a Glow group, and a range of resources and materials have been developed to demonstrate games- design tools and techniques, all in the context of Curriculum for Excellence.
The Scottish Government is providing additional funding to support the country's computer games industry, with a view to creating new jobs for suitably-qualified people. The NPAs could go a considerable way towards motivating students and helping them to develop the skills required to keep Scotland at the cutting edge.
Julie McLaren, Kate Farrell and Richard Scott will showcase the new National Progression Awards in computer games design at the Scottish Learning Festival, September 22, 12.30pm.