What’s a computer game?

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It’s always kinda weird and creepy when adults, particularly academics, talk about computer games. It’s a bit like your grandparents saying, “groovy.” That said, your roving reporter David Warlick reports on a presentation by Dr. Angela McFarlane in which she shares some impressive data about teacher attitudes towards the use of computer games in U.K. classrooms.

Dr. McFarlane is an old friend of mine for whom I have the greatest respect. We met at a workshop I led at NECC 1990 and worked together several times in the early 1990s. She is much wiser and more competent than 90% of the folks blabbering on about the educational potential of computer games. (I write about this issue recently in Edugaming – A Bad Idea for All Ages)

Unfortunately, I was unable to hear Dr. McFarlane speak this week, but I suspect that what she means by computer games, may differ substantially from what we Americans mean.

I just wrote the following on Warlick’s blog

You might wish to investigate what the UK considers computer games. As it’s been said, the UK and Australia have long used games in their teaching even if those games (and their formats) would be completely alien to Americans. I don’t suspect that “off the shelf” means Grand Theft Auto or even Math Blaster.

Another old colleague of mine, Mike Matson, had a company, 4Mation, in the U.K. that created graphic adventure games for children. (read about him and his work here. Two of his most famous titles were Granny’s Garden and Flowers of Crystal.

We’ve had graphic adventures in the United States, but they never took off in classrooms. On the otherhand, Matson’s masterpieces sold LIKE CRAZY and were used widely in Commonwealth Countries. I hardly ever visited an Australian or New Zealand school without seeing or hearing about one of Mike’s adventure games being used. They weren’t simulations as much as they were digital literature.

There are two important facts worthy of your attention:

1) Kids didn’t just play these graphic adventures on the one computer in the back of the classroom. Teachers used them as a catalyst for storytelling, map building and countless interdisciplinary projects. These games were the basis for long complex thematic units. Walls were covered with art and student writing related to the “game.” Classrooms became fantasy lands where students could imagine being inside the world of the computer games.

I fear that few American educators would find the educational benefit in such fantastical sustained classroom excursions. I could imagine such activities being dismissed as fanciful or frivolous.

2) American software publishers could not and would not understand the success of 4Mation’s products. My colleague Sylvia Martinez can tell you about the stunned looks of disbelief on the faces of her colleagues at America’s most popular educational software company (mid-90s) when she brought Mike Matson in to discuss the possibility of working together.

However kids and enlightened imaginative teachers (unmolested by NCLB) recognized the magic.

4Mation is still in business. I believe that Matson has moved on, but the company’s web site features drill and practice titles. Perhaps that’s the American influence on Britain.


Additional Resources

MicroWorlds EX, my favorite software environment in which kids can make their own games and learn what the adult software developers have been keeping for themselves.

Scratch is worth looking at as well. It’s not nearly as rich as MicroWorlds EX, but it has many fine qualities. (I’ll write an in-depth article about
Scratch soon)

Sylvia Martinez has forgotten more about game design, gaming and the commercial tensions involved in game development than most people will ever know. Sylvia holds a Masters degree in educational technology, was an aerospace engineer, Executive Producer at Davidson and Associates and Knowledge Adventure, created Math.com and was VP of a game development company that created platform games for the Gameboy, Playstation and Xbox.

Sylvia has written some terrific articles about why its not that simple to place your faith in educational games as a vehicle for educational progress.

Here are a few articles by Ms. Martinez, President of Generation YES…

EDUCATIONAL GAMES: HOW PURCHASER ATTITUDES AND MARKETS INFLUENCE DESIGN

Discussion of above article

Game-making with students – resources & rationale from Australia

Game design as an educational activity

Games and learning

Comments

One Response to “What’s a computer game?”
  1. Tom Hoffman says:

    In the rural PA town where I grew up, the sixth grade team has run an immersive science fiction simulation for the past, oh, thirty years. When I went through it circa 1980, the computer was simulated with an imposing looking stereo system. There might have been a TRS-80 somewhere as well. I think they’re a little more high tech now, although fact is probably catching up to fiction.