Although plenty of teachers support the fact that computer games can help develop logical thinking, planning and teamwork, for many they still seem "anti-education", equivalent to switching off.
Putting the games together in the first place is something else. The games industry employs the brightest and best because game authoring is a highly creative, skill-intensive area. Game authoring also offers opportunities across the curriculum.
Creating narratives, characters and writing in-game dialogue support literacy, while the creation of digital objects uses skills in art and design. The design of game environments can draw on learning in geography or history; the problems and logic behind game rules are underpinned by maths and, obviously, ICT skills have a role to play in programming.
Digital authoring also allows learners to consider how the games industry works. Schools in Northumberland have used software to let pupils create their own games in the context of exploring how the industry markets and finances products, allowing them to become more media literate.
You could look at the narrative structures behind games: what are the generic characteristics of game narratives and character types? How are the rule systems behind games structured? Pupils could also consider how audiences respond to games.
There are a number of game authoring programs already being used in classrooms. Scratch, available from the Massachussets Institute of Technology, can help pupils grasp mathematical and computational ideas, the need for creative thinking, systematic reasoning and collaborative working. MissionMaker, developed by Immersive Education, extends pupils' media literacy skills, as well as engaging them in literature. In one school in the east Midlands, classes have been set the task of creating computer games that dramatise key scenes in Romeo and Juliet.
From commercial providers, and at a simpler level, Little Big Planet allows children to create their own game levels and share these online. This kind of activity requires players to draw on skills in maths and physics, puzzle-making and evaluation.
One of the latest developments has come from Microsoft Research Labs. Kudo, a visual programming language designed specifically for young people to create games, runs on the Xbox, and schools can apply for a beta version for the PC.
It uses a game controller for input, and characters' actions are programmed using simple icons that relate to physical terms, such as vision, hearing and time. It offers a simple interface to create and design games that is particularly accessible to novices. It is also possible for creators to share their games online so that other users can play them and see how they work.
But does all this add up to relevant learning? There is no academic proof at this stage that playing computer games raises levels of academic achievement. Not enough has been tried in classrooms for conclusions to be made. Derek Robertson, a former maths teacher, is now an official "enthusiast" for computer games in Scottish schools, working to establish the variety of applications of games against learning objectives. He sees games as hubs around which teachers can create meaningful classroom tasks, fitting with existing educational objectives.
Even if game making doesn't sound like something you want to engage in just now, it is worth considering some of the wider questions around game authoring. Could it make connections between school and learners' own media experiences? Could it give learners more "ownership" of the curriculum? Finally, could you use computer games to help develop thinking skills and problem-solving abilities? Try some of the links and find out.
Kieron Kirkland is a learning researcher and Ben Williamson is a senior researcher at Futurelab. See www.futurelab.org.ukprojectsgames-and-learning for more on game authoring.
- Kodu is available for the Xbox for 400 Microsoft points (around #163;5). Educators can apply for a beta PC version.research.microsoft.comen-usprojectskodu
- MissionMaker is available from Immersive Education, price varies depending on the type of licence. www.kar2ouche.commissionmaker
- Scratch is available free from scratch.mit.edu
- Little Big Planet is available for the PS3 (around #163;18) and the PSP (around #163;20).