Chocolate covered brocolli, games, education and a changing world

I was really lucky this week to be able to attend the Game Based Learning Conference 2009 in London, one and half days of presentations that never failed to be thought provoking and very interesting with the latest ideas and practice surrounding the use of computer games to assist learning. It is a topic which can immediate provoke scepticism, many people associate games with having fun and few people associate having fun with education, so how can games help in education? The answers could be found in this conference, with teachers and researchers finding out how to use games to make a real difference and use them to build up all sorts of skills such as numeracy, literacy, business acumen, military skills and many others. I mention military skills as it is a good reminder that using games in learning is not actually a very new concept, e.g. in the Middle Ages, Chess was used to teach war strategy.

Education isn't ever a standalone subject of course, and the conference reflected this. Some topics being discussed touched on how the world is changing, not only with the arrival of mass consumption high technology but also the change to more interactive than passive ways of consuming media (yep people are watching less TV, and the broadcasters have noticed). Sometimes I think though that education is a window onto a nation's angst with many mentions of the idea that “education is broken”, “classrooms are broken” mixed in with some truly bizarre ideas, however, despite this there were some true stars of the conference who brought with them evidence that they had brought about really positive changes using games as part of their teaching activities.

Sean Dromgoole of Some ResearchBefore diving in to what was said, the last session provided some really useful context to the whole discussion with some data about who is actually playing games. This was given by Sean Dromgoole of Some Research, a games-orientated market research company. Two very strong lessons cam from his research, firstly, the market for computer games in the UK is vast, the number of “active games”, defined as people who had bought a game within the last twelve months was given as 16.7 million people, a further 5.6 million people were defined as “lapsed gamers”, and 3.8 million were defined as “non-buying” gamers. So nearly half of the country's population are, or have been, playing computer games. Secondly, all sorts of people play computer games, the games industry has diversified its offerings to make products that appeal to all sorts of people. At one time gaming was an activity most popular with young males, but this is changing. A key player in bringing about this change has been Nintendo who have had a lot of success in selling its Wii and DS products to non-traditional markets, such as women, families and older adults. The success has be also due to titles like Wii Fit and Rock Band (currently the most popular titles with women) placing more emphasis on social game play than traditional games. These units are also very popular, more than 5.8 million Nintendo DS units have been sold in the UK, more than five times the number of iPhones. So the potential reach of this area is huge.

Nolan BushnellThe conference was opened by Nolan Bushnell, famous for being the founder of Atari. He told us that “The classroom died as a concept 12 years ago”, yes in 1997 apparently, and went on to say that classrooms worked forty years ago when the only competition in town was “watching the corn grow and the river flow” but now there are too many other competitors for children's attention. The opening address didn't really prepare us for his ideas which he expressed in his keynote address, which I thought might be one of the highlights of the conference, particularly when he announced a new set of ideas for education. I was wrong, although he did make some valid points about the importance of creative and manual skills, which sometimes don't get the attention they deserve, his plans seemed to be a nightmarish vision, my colleague Rebecca Ferguson, who was also attended summed in up brilliantly “Treadmills in schools, continuous surveillance by parents, control of kids' language, freedom only as a reward.. Not liking this”. With children already isolated in their learning pods, Bushnell went on to explain that they might have problems interacting with authority figures, an maybe it would be better if children talked to an animated character on screen controlled by a teacher in another pod, then a bulb in an overhead projector blew, as if reality was tapping on our shoulders to remind us that this is nonsense. As one delegate put it “How many teachers have to tap dance this why [sic] when the technology fails on them too!?” It wasn't his finest moment.

The other disappointment of the conference was Terry Deary, author of the Horrible Histories series of books. He told us all how he thought schools were a waste of time and would not exist in twenty five years and then proceeded to rant his way through 2000 years of history pausing only to promote his books and new TV series. Afterwards he rushed off without taking questions. I've been more impressed!

Amazingly though there are people around who don't just spend their time ranting that “education is broken” and are trying to do more positive things. It appears a large group of these people can be found in Scotland and the presentations from Derek P Robertson and his colleagues provided a real sense of what can be done, today, and the benefits that their use of computer games in the classroom have brought to the children that they teach. Derek P Robertson said he doesn't think school is broken, he just feels we can continue to make it better and that is something he is trying to do through his work for Learning and Teaching Scotland's Consolarium. His interest in using games in school started in the mid-1990s when he saw two boys that had been put in a lower ability maths set playing on a Super Nintendo console, they were coming up with problem solving strategies to get through the puzzles of the game. These youngsters had not shown these abilities in class, and yet these same skills could really help them in the world of education. This observation proved life changing and since then Robertson has been investigating how games can be used in the classroom to enhance learning. Initially his ideas weren't well received by parents, but he commented that now it is “no longer seen as a maverick idea” with some parents commenting that they cannot believe the positive change in attitude to learning from their children. One family even donated £1,000 for games consoles! Robertson and his colleagues are also using technology in other ways too, he showed a fantastic “national virtual art gallery” (which I think is built using OpenSim?) in which children can display their work. Visitors can talk to the artists about their work, so giving them a chance to reflect on it. He has also started a national Guitar Hero championship, to encourage a “ winning mindset” in children. Playing the games is of course still a skill and this can be put to good use, we were shown a video of someone doing arithmetic at lightning speed on a Nintendo DS which was very impressive!

Robertson commented that “good teachers use good resources to engage learners” and this leads to the approach being taken in Scotland of not relying on special “edutainment” titles (games titles specifically written for the education market) but instead games that might be already popular with many games players. An example he game was using Hotel Dusk, a game for the Nintendo DS. This is a film noir style adventure game, and games like these are used in education because of their narrative structure can create opportunities for creative work. In this example, students would play the game and then be asked to write a detective story of their own. Robertson noted research from Ted Hung which found that narrative is becoming much more important in computer games.

Scotland seems to be far ahead in this area, three Scottish school teachers were also present giving presentations about their work. Vicky MacKenzie is a primary school teacher from East Dumbartonshire who told us about their Wii-mbledon project. She is a self confessed “ gaming geek” who is using the tennis game on the Wii as part of a set of activities, it is not just children playing the game but also using it as an inspiration for art lessons, teamwork and writing exercises. Interestingly she is also using it as a way to investigate some related topics such as health, digestion and drugs in sport. Kim Applin, a primary school teacher and a deputy head (currently on a secondment to Learning and Teaching Scotland) has used the Wii game Endles Ocean in teaching commenting that it is a “stunning context for learning to take place in”. She has constructed a range of activities around the game and found she didn't need to know everything about the games, commenting “if you are not sure the kids know”. Anna Rosvoll, also a deputy head of a primary school (seconded to Aberdeenshire Council as an ICT Project Officer) talked about the positive effects of using Nintendogs in the classroom. She feels that the best way for primary school children to learn is though play and has been surprised at just how many positive benefits it has had, children have been writing more, including in a blog that parents and grandparents can read. Some children already had the game, so they could have been potentially disengaged, but she found that by labelling them as “experts” and getting them to help other children this was averted. The benefits were not just academic though, the game made the children, including those who had previously been afraid of dogs, more keen to interact with them and they contacted a local dog warden to start a dog walking service. In the process of this they picked up valuable knowledge on how to behave around dogs. A comment from an audience member summed up an important lesson learnt from these activities, that the “key is not the game but a creative teacher”. Interestingly another audience member was from a college in her locality and expressed concern at their system being able to cope with these students once they arrive, an interesting prospect, if this methodology catches on, the rest of the education system will have to change too. It's not just north of the border where using games in the classroom is being tried out, Dawn Hallybone of Oakdale Junior School in London has been using the Brain Training game on the Nintendo DS to improve numeracy skills in children there. Resources are always finite in schools and she has managed to do this even with having to share 35 Nintendo DS units with 340 children.

Dr Jacob HabgoodWhile in Scotland games that aren't specifically designed for education have been used, academic research has been conducted by Dr Jacob Habgood, now head of Serious Games for Sumo Digital, into how educational games can be improved. He doesn't like “chocolate covered brocolli”, the idea that is is possible to wrap educational or “good” content in something fun to encourage learning. During his PHD he wrote a game called Zombie Division that sought to teach children division. Three versions of the game were produced, the first, a “control” version contained no learning at all, the second an “extrinsic” version (the chocolate covered broccoli approach) were children would have to pretty much stop playing the game to do some maths and move on. The third version was an “intrinsic” version that sought to integrate the educational aspect with the mechanics of the game. He dislike the idea of “making maths fun” finding it an illogical concept, comparing it with “making grass fun” in football! He sees maths as just a medium and this was the approach taken in the intrinsic version of the game. The intrinsic version of the game was found to be the most successful by far, particularly with girls. One of the children apparently commented that it was like “subliminal advertising with maths”! For further details on his research you can read his PHD thesis on the Zombie Division website.

Using games in learning though is not just an idea for children though, it can be used very effectively in older students and adults. Graham Duncan of Caspian Learning gave a really positive presentation on the areas of 3D gaming and casual gaming. His company is shortly going to release a product which aims to make it much easier for people to develop immersive 3D gaming environments for learning. He aims to fuse the game narrative with the subject matter and said that it is engagement not entertainment that is a good measure of the pedagogy being used. He then showed us a demonstration of a game that was a sobering reminder of why this software is sometimes called “serious games”. It was a game used by the military to train soldiers to be be able to run road checkpoints in Iraq. It gives soldiers the chance to practice using their skills in an environment where “safe failure” is possible and they can check that they are aware not only of operating procedure but local customs, ignorance of which can cause major problems. In the demonstration we were shown, the person playing the game (as a soldier operating a checkpoint) made a mistake and was shot, by using the game this can hopefully lessen the risk of this in real life. Another really interesting aspect of his presentation was the discussion of casual and social gaming. Up until then the conference had talked a lot about console based gaming, but he asked who had heard of Zynga and Playfish, most people (including myself) stared back blankly, but then he surprised us all by saying that these casual and social gaming sites get 1.5 billion visits per month, a truly breathtaking number. He predicted that this area will continue to grow, possibly threatening the traditional business models of the games industry (i.e. selling physical discs/cartridges etc – sound familiar?). He thought that 3D casual and social games would be slow to take off, but then said that the head of games at Facebook held the opposite view.

There was much criticism of the government's problematic Change4Life initiative and its recent poster that implied children who played computer games were doomed to a slothful and unhealthy life. There are so many health initiatives now is is easy to ignore them all as their messages just get lost in a sea of nagging. Despite this backdrop the presentation by Dr Richard Graham of the Adolescent Directorate sought to give a rational and balanced view of the problems young people can get into if they find go too far with games and find themselves addicted. The problems that he sees in the clinic are often caused by multiple factors and Dr Graham was keen to stress that what he was presenting was not meant to be alarmist but just to explain what he had seen. He defined addictive behaviour as using the computer game for more that fourteen hours per day, when not playing it being preoccupied with it, craving it and structuring days around it. He said he is seeing an increase in referrels where games and social networking are a factor, and one game factor that being seen increasingly is World of Warcraft. The factors that might be causing a problem with this game for some people might be such things as the need to progress though levels, the ability to acquire social status, and falling in with the wrong groups who might place a lot of pressure on individual gamers. The consequences of addition can be very serious, a gradual dropping out from educational and other activities might take place, development might stop, social interaction might get limited and sufferers might end up with a constant fear that they are missing something. A number of factors cause addiction though, not just the nature of the game in question (and very good things were said about WoW later on in Sean Dromgoole's presentation that said the groups in WoW can lead to a very real sense of belonging), this might include bullying, mood disturbance, a dissatisfaction with body image and a longing for something better. These problems are very complex and his clinic is offering increasing support to sufferers and their families.

Ian Livingstone of Eidos (the company that makes the famous Tomb Raider games) gave us a presentation about the state of the computer games industry in the UK. We are the forth biggest country in the world in terms of creating computer games, having just slipped behind Canada. The industry has changed beyond recognition since it started in the 1970s, many people have grown up playing games and games have gone from being a mass entertainment experience in the 70s, to a niche market, to a much more diverse market today thanks to new consoles like the Wii and DS. Games are no longer produced by individual programmers but by huge teams, e.g. Tomb Raider took a team of 150 people two years to produce with all of the associated cost, but the rewards can be huge the release of Grand Theft Auto IV produced much more revenue than the release of Harry Potter. Interactive entertainment was becoming much more in demand than passive entertainment, a fact also stated by Channel 4 Education. He was excited by the possibility of using games in learning and the prospect of using games to help reluctant learners improve their numeracy and literacy skills as it is people who lack in these skills that tend to have a great cost to society.

He wasn't so optimistic about the future of the games industry in the UK though, the costs of production are rising here, and until the pound dropped it was the most expensive place in the world to produce a computer game. Despite the wealth and intellectual property that this industry creates, gaming is often perceived badly, if someone is reading a book they are perceived as learning, but not if they are playing a computer game. Games often attract bad publicity from the press, but he felt this would change once those who control the press and replaced by younger people who have played games. On top of this often hostile attitude there is an increasing shortage in programmers who can code games, they typically need C++ skills, but the numbers of people taking these courses is in decline. Universities got a lot of criticism in the presentation for failing to produce graduate with the right skills, even many computer games courses were described as “not fit for purpose” as they do not emphasis programming but instead social characteristics of the games. On top of this other countries, such as Canada are offering tax incentives to games companies to operate over there and are producing the right graduates. I have a lot of sympathy with what he was saying, at some point we need to value IT skills much more in the UK and encourage young people into a career in IT, which can be very rewarding, and encourage a wide range of people into the profession getting involved in demanding technological challenges. The consequences of not doing this could be very severe, can any country compete effectively in the modern world without a healthy IT profession?

The demand for games in learning looks set to increase. Alice Taylor from Channel 4 Education gave a talk in which she said that they are switching from making TV programmed to making games (pretty startling for a TV company) as they aim their content at 14 to 19 year olds, who don't show that much interest in TV anymore. So interactivity is taking a hold and gaming looks set to increase in importance in learning. The conference was fascinating, and even in this very long blog post I've not managed to capture everything that was said, so if I have missed your contribution out I apologise. The developments in this area are exciting though and look like they could really help a wide range of people, but we face a challenging time in keeping our games industry alive unless some of our attitude change. It was the first time I had been such an event and found it very worthwhile, just in case you were wondering “ chocolate covered broccoli” is of course an educational expression, but if you are really tempted by the idea in literal form, there is a recipe.

A good question to leave you with though was posed by Derek P Robertson; “ shouldn't children's learning experience be an optimistic one?” I think this applies to all learners.


Man, that presentation of Nolan was a REAL disappointment indeed! Typical ideas by somebody who has never been in a classroom longer than a parent-teachertalk...OK, the man had some good ideas in the past (and some really bad as well), but this was about the dumbest thing I ever heard a guy of his 'size' tell to a large audience (although George W. had his share as well!)...
Hopefully next year presenters are checked on content before entering the stage!
good blog!

That Nolan bloke - what was he on about? I was at school 40 years ago, and there were plenty of distractions. TV, radio, music, hobbies (which all kids seemed to have).

I don't know why people who've developed something useful technological are regarded as gurus with profound insights into everything. The world is full of them, with their half-baked ideas. Making millions is not actually any guarantee of wisdom, or even intelligence.

Nice article Liam. It's really exciting to think about how our kids might be learning in the future. I hope at least some of it filters through to the classroom. I don't think schools and class rooms are any less relevant, just that what can be achieved and thus what can be expected is much greater.

The point of school is to mimic life and learn about it in a safe environment. So learning should be relevant to your future job but also your future relationships. You need time away from your parents around people your age where you can learn from experience and make mistakes. I do agree that teachers should be facilitators of this and be given the freedom to be creative with this goal in mind.

Why shouldn't it be fun in the process. I enjoy my job and have a laugh. If children learn at a young age that they can get things done whilst having fun then that's all the better for those who have to work and live with them in the future isn't it.

You might like this event next week:
In The Brain of Gojko Adzic: Games in the Cloud

Cloud and grid computing are becoming more popular and with improved functionality are now a good choice for startups. Although they solve lots of problems with traditional dedicated infrastructure, clouds are still in the early adopter phase and introduce a whole set of new challenges.

In this talk, Gojko Adzic presents an experience report from a recent project of a multiplayer games server deployed on cloud infrastructure using a computing grid for processing. Gojko will discuss architectural and deployment challenges, talk what was really good, what went bad, and what how the cloud changes the traditional approach to infrastructure and deployment.

This is a session for Java and .NET architects and developers.

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