Why video games could be good for school pupils

IN THE pre-dawn darkness of a winter's morning, I often hear bumps as my nineyear-old, having jack-knifed out of bed, gallops downstairs to enter Runescape, an internet game that mimics an alien world, complete with three religions, its own monsters, myths and quests.

For him, tapping on the keyboard is obviously the equivalent of the wardrobe route to Narnia as utilised by the Pevensie children.

In an effort to understand what I am dealing with here, I have tried playing it myself, but it doesn't work as well for me; I fumble and stumble, unable to control my "avatar" (the screen image representing my character online), unable to complete the simplest quest.

I, you see, am a digital immigrant, and like a non English-speaking mother who gets her children to do the shopping, I have to ask for my son's help with apparently simple tasks.

But I can’t help but notice my son’s focus, his enthusiasm and his competence in this scenario are in stark contrast to the face I see when he is filling in the blanks or circling the right answers on his homework work sheets.

It’s a thought that has occurred to others. Add Knowledge, a company belonging to the University of Abertay, is on the brink of a deal with four education authorities in Scotland to sell them homework video games.

The plan is to give every child a games console and games such as Pirate Star, aimed at P7 children, which, as well as being a game, purports to teach long division.

Paul Fullwood, professor of games technology at the university, said: “It has to be fun to play. No child is going to put a game called Long Division into their console. But, at the same time, they will learn some spelling and maths while they play it.”

Game playing is a positive alternative to other leisure pursuits, believes Fullwood. “I would rather my child was playing Civilization or Rollercoaster Tycoon than watching a soap opera. I would rather see them thinking and making decisions than just passively watching”.

Cultural analyst Beth Cross, of the Educational Sociology Institute at Edinburgh University, agrees. For her, parents and teachers who see scare stories in the media about addiction and paedophile grooming on the internet are often anxious and fearful of computer games.

“If a child had spent over an hour carefully constructing an intricate train track or tower block and someone came along and demolished it, we could see the impact and be very sympathetic. In the virtual world they are concentrating just as hard and accomplishing tasks fraught with hazards. When their sibling comes along and disconnects their internet connection, all we see is the squabble and it is very hard to see what they’ve lost.”

It was Cross who advised me to play Runescape, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, similar to the hugely popular Second Life virtual world, where millions of people play and socialise in an environment they create. So far I can’t quite see why it is so compelling for him.

To Professor James Paul Gee the key concept here is “flow”. This is what he has identified as the great strength of such games and, for him, it is something that education is not nearly good enough at. “Flow” represents the way a successful game remains consistently challenging and yet easy enough that the player has a constant feeling they are making progress.

Unlike most parents, this distinguished professor of education’s reaction when his six-year-old son developed a great interest in software called the Pajama Sam game was to play it alongside him and then study it. It proved to be a smart move.

“It’s clear that, by accident, I had entered an area where a wave of interest was coming up – and is still coming up.”

His book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, is becoming a seminal work. For Gee, based at the University of Wisconsin, computer games are a new art form and one that cannot be analysed with traditional tools.

For instance, he believes Grand Theft Auto, which is often criticised for being sexist and violent, should be used in schools. “People ought to use Grand Theft Auto in the classroom to think about values and ideology, ” he says. “There are lots of things people could learn from games.”

Some of Scotland’s computer game specialists based at the University of Abertay, Dundee, the first in the world to run both masters and undergraduate degrees in computer games technology, believe they are about to change the poor-relation status of educational games, however.

An Abertay spin-off games company called TPLD is in the middle of selling back to the university team-building games set on an island called Infiniteams. They also sell these to the corporate sector.

For CEO Jim Piggott, the barrier up to now has been cost: “Games cost millions of pounds to build and educational games haven’t had the investment that commercial games have had. But we are working with the university on changing that.”

He and the university management firmly believe it is in the interests of the economy for young Scots to be primed to grab as big a share as they can of a growing sector which is already five times as big as radio and television.

“This is a tertiary economy, ” says principal Bernard King. “We don’t manufacture. We can barely afford to do electronics. All we can sell are ideas, so this is a very important area for us.”

And in the meantime, perhaps parents like me should think twice before turning the damn thing off.

The Herald
12th December 2006