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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Computer games in classrooms

Charles Jameson
Project Manager, Curriculum Corporation

There has been much discussion, in both the general and education media, on the relevance – or lack thereof – of computer games to education and learning.

Some see computer games and their associated culture as something to tap into: ‘If only kids spent as much time on their maths as they do on their Xbox!’. As a result, there have been various attempts to bring the ‘x-factor’ of gaming into education multimedia – and the rationale for doing so is entirely understandable. Computer games such as World of Warcraft or leading titles on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 are massively popular, with millions of loyal fans. If only some of that magic could rub off onto formal education. But what is this magic, this x-factor?

There’s sometimes a simplistic ‘me too’ approach when bringing gaming culture and ideas into the classroom. What makes computer games so uniquely engaging to its audience is often overlooked.

As a rule, computer games are goal-oriented: the players undertake a quest or mission where they must overcome obstacles to reach a particular objective. Along the way they have an incentive to acquire ‘tools’ or resources such as weapons, or new talents for their game character in order to progress to the next ‘level’. They also have to overcome periodic challenges, typically from the onscreen enemy or opponent, or environmental obstacles.

Computer games developed for learning purposes have typically migrated task-focused approaches to an educational context, on the assumption that tasks and goals are crucial for players’ engagement because learners are habituated to interact with games in this way. In some cases this approach does work, but in others, the ‘steak’ has been migrated, but not the ‘sizzle’ of engagement.

A new variety of computer game has at its core an emphasis on the game’s ‘gameplay’ – the immersive experience itself of playing the game. Users’ interest in this dimension is regularly overlooked.

Two games that focus on the player’s process as key to engagement are currently available for Sony’s Playstation 3 game console. Each serves as a lesson in engagement for education, and lends itself to classroom use.

In LittleBigPlanet (LBP) the user controls a small woolly character known as Sackboy (or Sackgirl). The game starts with the user customising Sackboy and then navigating him through an increasingly challenging series of playful 3D environments. Gradually, the users, via Sackboy, are able to build and create their own LBP worlds, using onscreen tools provided by the game’s creators. The complexity of the tools increases with the skill of the player. Via Sackboy, users can build a sophisticated range of tools and environments: objects of different weights, materials and sizes. They can texture and scale the tools, adding springs, pulleys, levers and so on. Thus LBP becomes a construction environment, with a realistic physics engine at its heart, allowing the user to engage in a process of ‘science by doing’. These customised tools and environments can then be shared online within the LBP community. Players can also work on their constructions together. See the LBP presentation on YouTube.

The Le@rning Federation (TLF) has had initial conversations with Sony Entertainment on what it would mean to create shared environments using LBP where the environments are either constructed to demonstrate aspects of playable physics or produced by students to demonstrate their understanding.

Since LBP supports multiplayer gaming (four users on the same Playstation), science students could use it to explore the construction of mechanical devices and/or concepts concerning forces from the early and middle years science curriculum. Students can share their discoveries online via the LBP network for peer review or more formal assessment where, for example, a student analyses a level constructed and saved by their teacher.

The second Sony Playstation 3 game, Flower, is much smaller in scope. The user manipulates the controller to ‘fly’ through beautiful synthetic 3D landscapes, collecting flower petals. The effect eschews the adrenaline punch of typical game-console fare, and aims to relax the player rather than stimulate them. The developer compares the game to a poem. While there are objectives, these are secondary to the enjoyment of the journey itself.

Flower, like LBP, could be used as a simple reward, a way of providing a brief ‘time out’. A more creative approach would be to use the player’s experience as a new ‘text’ within the expanding cannon of ‘texts’. Flower provides a unique experience that could be used to explore ideas of narrative and non-verbal communication, and the concept of beauty; analyse emotions; debate the creators’ premise that Flower is a poem; and consider the text of computer games, noting that in Flower there is no score, and no death, for example.

As educators, we are governed by a code of practice that often excludes the use of materials outside the G rating. These games achieve a G rating by avoiding the aggressive themes often condemned as inappropriate within an educational and pastoral framework.

Both LBP and Flower are console games, rather than games for PC or Mac. This introduces another area for future discussion around the application and use of consoles in the school and in the classroom. Computers now have a recognised place in learning, but what about consoles?

A video about LBP can be viewed at littlebigplanet.com. A trailer and a related trailer can also be viewed. A video about Flower is available at thatgamecompany.com.

Games such as LBP and Flower inspire and engage, in part because they break from traditional notions of how a computer game should be played. For schools, they point to unique ways of incorporating game consoles such as the Xbox and Playstation into the classroom as legitimate learning platforms.


Subject Headings

Computers in society
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)