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Learning Curves

Are games and education finally set to converge successfully?

In the past, the spheres of education and game development have traditionally been perceived as standing at complete odds with one another. Everything that defined these two worlds seemed contrary, and their only convergence came in the form of the 'edutainment' products - computer games that were often poorly made and attempted to disguise mundane educatoinal content.

But more recently, the technology available to schools has developed significantly. There has been a shift in emphasis from blackboard to computer screen, and a new window of opportunity has opened.

The games industry is already reacting to the emergence of this new market. The past few months have already seen a trial of a keystage 2 version of consumer title Buzz, the beginning of the PSP's reinvention as an educational application, and the commercial release of a games development tool specifically designed for use in the classroom.

Since the turn of the new millennium, several Government-funded projects researching games have been undertaken - and just for a change, they haven't all focused on violence, addiction or behavioural problems.

At the forefront of moves to incorporate games into classroom activity is the Primary National Strategy - a Government initiative concerned with raising levels of numeracy and literacy in primary schools. Clive Whitburn, a PNS team leader, shares the growing optimism within education about the idea of harnessing children's enthusiasm for games, television and comics.

"We may have gone as far as we can go with traditional literacy skills in a vacuum, so literacy needs to go far wider than simple reading and writing," he explains.

The ethos of Primary Strategy is based on the belief that any text which can be 'read' is a form of literature, and that it's important to engage with children through material they are already keen to absorb in order to generate interest in reading and writing.

The influential Government-backed 2003 Essex Writing Project set out to "challenge and re-define teachers' perceptions of texts", and in its wake came a flood of research geared towards exploring the potential of games in the classroom.

The education sector is finally realising that a medium often stereotypically associated with laziness, poor health and violence can help children who are uninspired by books learn how to deconstruct texts, while inspiring them to create and consider. So has the computer games industry been as progressive in its thinking?

Thankfully, it would seem so. The recent development and trial of Buzz: The Schools Quiz came about as a direct response to a presentation by the DfES at the Edinburgh International Entertainment Festival on the positive effects seen in schools where games were being used as teaching aids.

David Amor, creative director of Buzz developer Relentless Software, explains, "After the conference I approached the speaker and talked about how the Buzz game would be a good fit. It's a game that's easy to understand, easy to operate, has eight player and team play modes, and is designed for a simple question and answer system."

Immediately work began on redesigning Buzz, and the first trial version was demonstrated at BETT - the London exhibition which showcases technology for schools. Trials are currently ongoing in schools across the country, where teacher input is a major consideration as Relentless develops this title - and according to reports the response so far has been wholly positive.

Meanwhile, earlier this month Sony announced plans to demonstrate how the PSP can be applied to the classroom as a multimedia handheld. A March launch event will bring together educational bodies, Government ministers and industry professionals to explore and discuss these possibilities.

Elsewhere, in a joint project between the London University Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media and software developer Immersive Education, Caroline Pelletier and her team have developed Missionmaker. The recently released software enables children and teachers to work on creating games in the classroom, and it's currently being used in over 50 schools.

The games produced by children with the Missionmaker software are often of a surprisingly high level of quality and require them to develop visual design, maths, audio design and literacy skills. As Pelletier explains, children "developed abilities across these areas, and many found game design to be as satisfying as gameplay".

So far, it seems that a mutually beneficial relationship is developing between education and gaming, and children are reaping the rewards. But while wisdom is the currency of education game developers need to make money - and unfortunately, software for schools simply doesn't generate the same level of revenue as the software sold on British high streets.

Amor is well aware of these issues. "The BETT show was very interesting. It was clear that the educational technology business is alive and well," he says.

"That said, I think it would be hard economically to develop an educational game on the scale of Buzz from scratch."

Academics like Pelletier are also well aware of the realities - "It's very difficult for software developers to generate sufficient revenue from the education market to sustain the development of products which are exclusively or mainly for schools."

It is also true that an air of caution still hangs over the bond forming between these two giant forces in children's lives. On the topic of games as literature, Whitburn is keen to express that "I think it is very positive, but it is defiantly not about downgrading the importance of books."

Pelletier too, has a word of warning to offer. "Games can have a role, but not by trying to make education more 'game-like', because it isn't, and kids know this," she says.

Despite this, it is clear that game makers should no longer ignore the market education offers - even if redevelopment of IP is their only consideration. If the correct balance is struck, teachers, children and developers could all have a lot to gain.

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