Stephen Heppell on Computer Games

I spoke to Stephen at a Becta conference on ‘Harnessing Technology’ in Birmingham last week and want to bring him up to Scotland to work with us on our strategy.

Stephen’s blog is well worth reading, not just for the deep insights he offers but also for the important historical perspective that he contributes.

I have copied one of Stephen’s recent posts on computer games and learning as an excellent example of the quality of his thinking. Note the copyright to Stephen.

‘ Play to learn, learn to play’

The other day I was sitting in the cockpit of our boat, moored up at St Katherine Docks in London, playing with my little Nintendo DS lite. A father and daughter walked past and chatted. After a while the dad indicated the big IMX40 steering wheel; “Carbon Fibre?” he asked and I confirmed that it was. He looked impressed. His daughter pointed to the DS and asked “Animal Crossing?” but although I like that game I was enjoying Big Brain Academy, and told her so. “Cool” she said, doubtless picking a word she thought I’d understand, and showing a thumbs-up sign.

I reflected that a time when 10 (or thereabouts) year olds think that brain games in games consoles are cool is pretty close to that holy grail of learning and games working together to inspire and challenge us all.

As it happened, that same week was the London Games Week and I had been asked to launch the excellent booklet “Unlimited Learning: computer and video games in the learning landscape” for which I’d written the introduction. It explores this very issue. Here it is:


It didn’t take long for the very first, very simple, computer games to catch the attention of education. Even with the simplest of graphics and moribund processor speeds, children were gripped, and education was fascinated. But that attention was characterised by two entirely different perspectives, rather in the manner that some see a “glass half full” where others see a “glass half empty”. In the “glass half full” camp there were those observers who could straight away see, and applaud, the motivation and attention of the game players with even these simplest early games. Children whose attention wandered elsewhere in their lives, for example at school, were unexpectedly very, very focussed. Their discussions about tactics and strategy were detailed and enduring. Competition was strong. For this camp a journey began of what has become something of a quest for the Holy Grail. In this case the Grail was learning software that was as seductive and engaging as computer games. In the early years that quest reached out to try to inspire Spelling Space Invaders or Punctuation Pac Mac. On-screen snooker became an exploration of bearings, virtual football an exercise in maths and probability. Of course, in those early days of computing, the school computer was one of the most powerful a neighbourhood would see. People broke in to schools to steal them and the educational programmers, hobbyists and geeky teenagers, were at the forefront of their art. Some of the earliest educational software was seductive, engaging, challenging and evocative because it was written by the same teams that were in parallel developing the cool games. In terms of the installed base, schools mattered in the market because, in the UK at least, a lot of the nation’s best computers were in schools! Security and theft were huge issues. There were more computers in school than on the high-street. But the home computer revolution, led in the UK by companies like Sinclair with its wobbly-keyed Z80 powered cheap-as-chips Spectrum, began to dominate the market and a host of “computing” devices filled UK homes with a remarkable penetration. And at home, people liked to play, didn’t they? Rapidly, those hobbyist pioneer software writers began to evolve into a games industry that in 2006 has helped the UK’s creative industries to outperform the City in earnings. In learning the “glass half full” perspective would also reveal that the skills and capabilities of this new creative economy were rather different from those needed back in the last century. In a curiously recursive kind of way, people began to see that the collaboration and problem solving OF games, were exactly the strategies required FOR the industries that had grown up on the back of new technologies. Learning would need to move on.

But at the same time the “glass half empty” camp were furrowing their brows into a fierce frown. Computer games were just the kind of thing that they could see needed to be banned right away too. Where the other camp saw concentration they saw addiction; where there was intense competition they saw social dysfunction and isolation; where there was delight they saw distraction. Children were “lost in a world of make-believe” when they should have been out “kicking a can around the streets with friends”. We should not be surprised by this. An aggressively Protestant streak in education has always seen its task as the protection of learners from almost any new technology. When the first ballpoint pens appeared they were confiscated for fear of the damage that might occur to children’s writing (as though the blotchy fountain pen, with slow drying ink, in the grip of a smudgingly left handed child was somehow a peak in technology to be protected!!). Later, as calculators appeared these were in turn removed for fear of the damage they might do to the learner’s arithmetic and today children’s mobile phones are being removed at the school gates for fear of… well, for this “glass half empty” group almost anything will do as a reason as long as education can be made to lag well behind the reality of everyday life. In every case throughout the history of educational technology however, this negativity has been seen, eventually, to be foolishness. Ballpoint pens are now the bedrock of children’s literacy, calculators have enabled new and effective strategies for engaging children in numeracy. Enlightened schools are already embracing the mobile phone as a conduit for communication outside of the school, and for its ability to offer a powerful, personalised, browser in every pocket. But for Games the criticism has always been a little more enduring, possibly because the games themselves evolve continuously, providing fresh focus for new criticisms. Today’s games are criticised for being “graphically photo realistic” where before the criticism was of the “”primitive shapes” and “garish colours”; where prices were once supposedly a socially divisive issue, now the cheapness brings a criticism of “ubiquity”. A favourite criticism of this dark view of gaming is to see “rapid hand eye co-ordination” as some kind of strange digital palsy, somehow missing completely the fact that “rapid hand eye co-ordination” needs some awesome cognitive processing to enable that co-ordination. But if you see a “glass half empty”, that negativity embraces you like a black cloud. Rather like being trapped in a computer games darkest level, ironically!

Now, to some extent, if we were still in the 1990s, this wouldn’t matter. Children had rather enjoyed education’s “distant” relationship with games and were happy to be slightly subversive experts in a place that their teachers poorly understood. Surely a tweedy teacher embracing their games earnestly would damage the street cred. of this most enduring of leisure pursuits and dilute some of the pleasure and mystery? The industry too was happy with a distant and slightly prickly relationship. If teachers confiscate games consoles, then what better advert for them could there be, the industry reflected. Indeed a major learning initiative with one major games platform brand in the 1990s, which also involved a huge UK publisher and the creation of a global learning brand, was scrapped at the last moment because the platform provider suddenly took fright at the prospect of Education approving “their” games. A warm embrace by Education seemingly threatened to smother their product’s reputation and sales. “Teachers recommending computer games? It could kill the brand” they cried. The industry was happy with a gulf between learner and gamer. Children were too.

But, we are in the 21st century now and, for some fortunate learners, the curriculum has moved on. For them, it is already rich with seductive new technologies, hopefully by now properly embedded, as the leading edge children create digital videos, collaborate on their own podcasts, and assemble their e-portfolios to log an impressive track record of digital creativity. In terms of its impact of the curriculum, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) started out with a primary focus on the word Technology (children studied the computer in Computer Studies), but as time passed and technology became more ubiquitous the focus in learning turned to the word Information and indeed in a multitude of conference keynotes much reference was made to The Information Age. But one huge impact of this ubiquitous technology is to move Information towards being a free good. So much information, so many providers. All the heated debates about IPR and plagiarism fall away with the realisation that, like Technology, Information is everywhere. ICT isn’t then about these two key words and again the debate moved forwards. For ICT the C word has become a primary focus; good communication is scare and valued: in the 21st century it is Communication that is making the running in new learning. Interestingly in the games world too it is communication, from player to player, from console to console, from continent to continent, that is making waves.

Communication matters. In a world of ubiquitous technologies it is no longer about how many computers per pupil a school has installed. In a world where Google is freely available on the phone in your pocket, where literally millions of contributors sharing their images and videos and knowledge on flickR, YouTube or MSN, content is not king either. And in a world where WHAT you know is looking like Google’s role, WHO you know and HOW you collaborate with them are looking pretty important. Communication has come to matter more than either technology or information. They are both everywhere, good communication is scarce and treasured. ICT has become fiercely democratising as the authentic voices of the consumer, the learner, the viewer, the parent, have finally been given a place to be heard. Games have been quicker to respond to this than education. while schools struggle to connect children around the world, consoles like the little Nintendo DS offer a naturally wireless environment and a host of connected collaborative games. In modern language lessons children rarely phone a friend in France for a chat on Skype, but on the way home they might easily assemble a global team for a game of virtual football. This is a peer to peer century and it is not likely that children will tolerate having to power-down to come to school in it. If wireless collaboration and fun is so easily carried in their pockets and so much a part of their gaming world then, they might not unreasonably ask, where is it in the classroom? Part of the answer may lay with the new form factor hardware such as PSP, or Microsoft’s Origami project, producing very much a personal, pocketable computer form, restructuring the computer for peer to peer communication.

The simplest way to summarise this is that in the 20th century we built big things that did things for people (like the BBC, railway systems, or the National Curriculum in many countries) and all the technology of the industrial revolution took us in a direction of economies of large scale, centralised organisation and hierarchical structures. The technology of the 21st century however, has taken us in new directions. ICT has offered a host of new opportunities: companies are becoming more collegiate and agile, hierarchies are flattening, the word “centralised” has become an insult, and all the success stories of the 21st century have been about helping people to help each other. For example, eBay doesn’t carry stock, it just puts together people who want items, with people who have those items; helping people to help each other is simple recipe for 21st century economic success. If these things interest you, you might anticipate a massive expansion of the voluntary and charitable sector too. It has already begun. The Games industry understands this reasonably well too, and a host of current games offer collaborative, social, virtual and actual, communities on-line as part of the play experience. This includes the sheer fun of playing together away from the keyboard. Watching small groups of children learning language through specialist software that interfaces to their Konami Dance Mats is to see peer to peer learning too.

Unfortunately education has been rather slow to notice all this, with the exception of a few inspired ministers and projects around the world. For example, universities have, if anything, rushed off in completely the opposite direction, have become quite viciously hierarchical and depressingly unsocial. Having spent the 20th century trying to escape from their 19th century structures they seem to have greeted the 21st century by finally embracing 20th century instead. Oh dear. Universities rather blindly relish continuing to be the “big things” that “do things for people” and may well not survive as their already collaborative students apply a very considerable ingenuity to helping each other; just type “free essays on-line” into Google to see what that help might look like if universities don’t move forward soon. One possible salvation may lie in the support of groups like SkillSet, developing effective partnerships between the audio visual industries and further and higher education institutions to ensure a progression for 21st century skills. Of course, as you might expect, SkillSet emerged from the film and new media industries, but by building and conjoining a network of Skillset Academies it is very much trying to help universities and the industry to help each other. A glimmer of hope perhaps. But is isn’t just universities that have largely missed the plot: we have too few global schools, inside schools there are very few formal collaborative assessments; “learning stuff” is still valued more than “critiquing stuff”; working alone is assessed ahead of working together. It is quite possible to imagine a future where schools too become like railway stations: places where you go reluctantly when other choices are unavailable; when you get there you very quickly regret it.

Some games companies too have struggled with the onset of the 21st century. Rather too many seek to be the organisation that produces the next blockbuster whilst their passive market falls in line to consume what is on offer. In their dreams!, but unlike universities, most games companies have woken up and noticed which century they are in. The voice of the consumer shines into their development processes. They are building seductive games which help people to help each other and indeed where helping others is a primary strategy for generating enjoyment. For example GameTrack provides a complex system for tracking and analysing sports performance metrics, but by creating Gametrack Groups the power of peer to peer support is unleashed. GameTrack doesn’t coach you, the way it might have in the 20th century, it helps you to coach each other through the generation of complex and detailed metrics.

Indeed, this is where it starts to get really interesting. Interactive games (characterised by players making choices) are becoming eclipsed by participative games (characterised by players making contributions) and the strategies for successful game playing are increasingly complex, sophisticated, challenging and cerebral. This edges games towards the very heart of where learning is headed. The danger is that, as these 21st century games evolve, education fails to take proper account of these complex strategies, fails to offer a learning progression that builds on and from them. One result would be a disaffected generation recoiling from learning not because it is is dull but because they are hungry to progress their cognitive skills and don’t find enough challenge in traditional learning to offer such progression. This is not fanciful. My own research work in the early 1990s revealed a very clear set of strategies evolved by children playing computer games. To succeed in even the simplest platform game children had to lock their problem solving into a tight cycle of Observe, Question, Hypothesise, Test. Curiously this exactly matched the scientific method that education had been trying to embed in young scientists, with a conspicuousconspicuous lack of success, since the birth of science. The problem back in the early 1990s was that because teachers and policymakers didn’t play those early games they had no idea of just how sophisticated their young learners’ iterative strategies were. As a result the opportunity to build on those strategies and bring science to life were missed. To some extent an early deficiency model of game playing blinded education to the opportunities on hand.

This might not happen second time around. Optimism is strong because learning is seductive too, per se. Children love to learn, from pre school, through their Key Stages and on into adulthood and lifelong learning. Games manufacturers are discovering that this love of learning is not easily diminished and a host of games are emerging that are nakedly and gloriously focussed on learning. Suddenly, the 21st century has a real opportunity to bring together the engagement and focus of game playing with our innate sheer delight in learning. The Holy Grail of learning software that was both seductive and engaging games might be found that delivered on specific national curriculum targets. Today that Holy Grail might be found because those games have a focus on learning itself. Titles such as Nintendo’s Brain Training, with its clever box caption “How old is your Brain?” are selling to young children and to pensioners simultaneously in colossal numbers. And of course this happens just at a time when education and learning, throughout life, is questioning and reinventing itself. The huge global trends in learning, away from one size fits all towards personalisation, away from age phases towards “no age limits”, away from specific disciplines towards project based learning, away from simple notational assessments towards new media based e-portfolios, away from individual towards collaborative, all open the door to a wide embrace of cerebral learning games. Education and Games are literally starting to speak the same language, pursue the same research paths. It may well be that, just as all the success stories of the 21st century are about helping people to help each other, the success stories around learning and games playing will all come about as a result of the two industries helping themselves to help each other.

People love to learn, people love to play. It should not have taken quite so long to make progress on putting those two seamlessly together should it? In the 21st century, the glass is neither half full or half empty; for the first time, it is simply overflowing with opportunity.’

© Stephen Heppell 1996

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