My top 5 pre-console video games

Back in the eighties, video games weren’t really very much fun. You had to load games from a cassette tape and you could have your tea or watch Newsround while you waited for it to load.

  1. Elite on the BBC Back in 1984, nobody had invented the concept of free roaming adventure. When space game Elite came along and you could visit any planet in an enormous galaxy, my brother and I were most impressed. It didn’t matter that visiting different planets was just visiting the same circle with a spinning hexagon shape to dock in and that, the only difference between one planet and another, was the name. The most I got to was ‘dangerous’.
  2. Amok on the Vic 20.  Looking at the screen above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this game was not very good. In 1981 however, this was the cutting edge of entertainment. In Amok you were a stick man who got to shoot other, slightly fatter stick men. It was awesome.
  3. Skooldaze on the Spectrum. You can play it here:schooldaze.png                                  This was the original verson of ‘Bully’. You played a tiny 2D figure running around a school. You had to attend lessons and follow a strict timetable of moving from one class to another, but, you could do all sorts of mean things to other students and teachers.  Everytime you did somethng wrong you got ‘lines’ and when you got more than 10,o00, the game was over.
  4. Chuckie Egg on the BBC B. Play it below:chuckie.png                                  The premise was simple, control a fat bloke around the screen to collect eggs and avoid the ostiches, or, on a harder level, a huge flying chicken. Awesome.
  5. Ace on the Commadore 64.   A rare two player feature of this flying game was that one player could fly whilst the other one did the shooting. I spent a long time with my gunner, John, from across the road, engaged in air battles. I remember that John had a poetic edge to him and once asked, ‘Is there any point in war?” after we’d had a particularly heavy battle with some russian fighter planes. A fine thought.

Quarrel – A first rate educational game that almost never got made.

My small family uploaded ‘Quarrel’ from Xbox live a few days ago because it was free. It’s a mixture of the old board game ‘Risk’ and ‘Scrabble’, players have to make better words than their opponents to take over their part of the map. The person who controls the whole map wins.

As a teacher and someone who is professionally interested in education and particularly e-learning, I was loathe to spend Friday night making words with my kids. I would have preferred some real action, involving zombies or motorbikes, but Quarrel won us all over pretty quickly. To my amazement I found myself buying Quarrel for 400 Xbox live points (about £3.25) and we’ve been playing all weekend.

It’s hard to believe then, that Quarrel was nearly never released. Developed by Denki it was rejected time after time by leading games publishers because they did not think a word game would be interesting enough to make money. (see the full article here http://uk.xboxlive.ign.com/articles/121/1217197p1.html) Games publisher didn’t think like me, did they? Did they think that games that aren’t full of action won’t make money?

Actually, Quarrel is full of action, but it’s based around making words so you can defeat and kill enemy soldiers. The action depends on how well you can make words from a number of different letters.

My son already knew how to spell the word ‘who’ and when he used it in battle he was overjoyed to find out how powerful it was. There’s your education, right there. You learn this so you can do this.

We need more games like Quarrel, so before they do get made, lets support this great game. If you’ve got an Xbox and are hooked up to Xbox live, search for it in the Arcade section and download it.


Do video games have a responsibilty to educate?

Way back in 1922, when television was a brand new invention, the fresh British Broadcasting Corporation or BBC as we know it, decided its mission would be to  ‘inform, educate and entertain’ . Granted, the world was a different place and the power of the media was only just beginning to be realised but it was the spirit of modernity and a desire to use technology for the greater good that forced the BBC to put such a maxim in place. They felt that it was part of their job, with such massive power, to try and teach people something good.

If only modern video games felt like they had to do the same.

Serious films and books have always needed to ask bigger questions than just their story, and have challenged the status quo or tried to understand or change people’s belief systems. Cinema continues to confront racism, sexism and notions of what is right and wrong. Could you imagine video games doing this? Why not? How does Halo 2 stand up to a film like Schindler’s List?

Today, video games outsell movies and that includes trips to the cinema – click here for the Telepgraph article. That means that sales of titles for the playstation, Wii and the Xbox 360 might be becoming the most powerful cultural phenomenon on the planet, especially for those under thirty. As one of my young gamer students said  – ‘I don’t watch films.. because I’m not in control of the action’.

Part of the problem is that video games aren’t taken seriously enough by the media or by the general public. Some people just don’t admit to liking video games because they might be geeky or in some way childish – not at all serious and highbrow like books or cinema. Why not?

Truth is, games do already educate us and our children in more ways than we might imagine. Mark Prensky, James Paul Gee and other academics claim that playing computer games help people to learn. I know the ancient peoples of the world from playing Civilization and learned about ancient Japan through ‘Total War. but in a similar way I know lots of irrelevant stuff from playing games, like the fact that you need a silver weapon to fight a ghost in Oblivion. What if video games had tried to teach me something that might be helpful?

Video games do have a responsibilty to their players and they ought to be able to challenge opinions as well as reflex action. This is changing though games like  Heavy Rain, it’s is an emotional thriller that sees players take part in a story as they have never done before – and is getting closer to the cinematic experience. However, it doesn’t go far enough.

Here are the video games I’d like to see. Bringing up a teenage boy in a north London estate – when he gets arrested the game ends and then the sequel, bringing up a teenage kid in a South African township – only this time the game ends when he dies. How about a third person adventure where you play a busy doctor in an NHS hospital dealing with patients and getting points when they live or die, and then the sequel, exactly the same – but in India. Here’s a good one, a sort of Grand Theft Auto style game but set in Iran and rather than mafia style activities you get  involved distributing illegal rock and roll music and pro democracy leaflets while avoiding the religious police. Prison guard in Congo?  Prison guard in Guantanamo Bay?

Truth is, gamers probably don’t want to have to be faced with these kinds of difficult decisions. The beauty of a film or a book is that you don’t have to choose what happens or decide if it’s right or wrong to do something, it just happens and you don’t have to be part of it. There’s a big difference in watching a character shoot another character and you actually having to shoot someone in a video game.

At the end of one of the first Spiderman movie, Spidey repeats the line his uncle told him earlier on in the film – ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ If only it were true in the video game industry.


Teaching with the Nintendo Ds – mobile technology in the classroom – chatrooms

The DS is a great little gaming machine. It has a camera, two screens, Wi-fi and some clever built in tools. However, it is a gaming machine and without specialist software it’s pretty hard to squeeze any education use out of it. I’ve been lucky enough to get to try out this hardware as part of a MOLENET project in the UK which exploits mobile technlogy for education. I had 16 new DSi Nintendo machines to use with my English language and Maths students. In this blog I’ll talk about just one function of the DS – its ability to instantly connect with other machines around it.

Instant Chatrooms

A great feature of the DS is that it can connect and chat with other DS machines – see the picture on the right. This is a lovely piece of built in software, you can type or draw something and then ‘send’ it to up to 15 DS machines that are logged into the same chatroom. This doesn’t require connection to the internet and has great potential to be exploited in the classroom.

Set Up

I gave my students a DSi each and asked them to go to the ‘sytem settings’ > page 2 > profile > username’. Here, they had to change the name of the device to their own name so everyone could see who wrote each entry. I didn’t allow nicknames unless this was a name that everyone used for this student. I then asked students to click on the box with a smiling face on the main menu ‘Chat’ and then choose ‘Chatroom A’. Everyone had to write ‘hello’ to show they were there. I also had my own DSi logged into the chatroom so I could follow what was happening, give feedback and also contribute if necessary.

Spelling

The first obvious use is spelling, ask a student to spell a word and they can instantly spell it and send it so you and the rest of the class. I tried this in my intermediate English class and asked them to spell twenty of the most commonly misspelt words in English – click here for this list. I’ve done lots of spelling tests but this was much more fun and students could get feedback on their answers straight away. There was also and element of pressure, everyone was able to see if you had spelt the word wrong and so, some weaker students waited till stronger ones had written the answers and the sent it to the group – they could then copy the answer as their own. This backfired on a couple of my students as one of the cleverest decided to write an incorrect spelling on purpose which they copied.

Short Answer Questions

I’ve used short answer questions in internet chatrooms as a computer lesson before – click here for the blog, so I used the same lesson here and asked students to write down answers to quick, kind of pithy questions like ‘When did you last cry? Why?’ ‘Who do  you most admire?’ and ‘Tell me a lie about yourself.’ (which isn’t a question – but it asks for a response). I also asked some stupid questions like ‘What did you have for your breakfast?’ and ‘What animal would you be?’. These were designed to generate fun for the class but they also had a more serious side. I noticed that most students were desperate to answer quickly and with good answers that were correct and/or funny proably because the whole class could see their individual response. As well as generating written English the quiz also generated a great deal of talking, asking for clarification and also follow up comments on individual answers.

Conversations

Getting students to have conversations with each other on the DSi chatrooms seemed the logical next step.  This time, I asked students to go to the  ‘sytem settings’ > page 2 > profile > username’ and change the name of their machine to something that noone else would be able to guess – this could be ‘Student 1’ or ‘student 2’ or something more strange and memorable like ‘flower’ or ‘blue’. Importantly, they were not allowed to tell anyone their name. I then secretly put students into one of the four chatrooms on the DS by passing them pieces of paper with the letter of the chatroom they had to go. I have twelve people in my class and so there were three people in each chatroom. I gave students five minutes to  chat to each other and guess who the other people were in the chatroom. Iasked them not to shout out their answer, but write the names of the people in the chatroom and their real life names on the paper I’d given them.

This was a fun lesson as students asked each other questions, gave each other false answers and pretended to be someone else. Whilst there wasn’t any specific focus of the lesson, dexterity in English reading and writing (and speaking) was tested to its full capacity in a meaningful way. Everyone enjoyed the task and not everyone guess correctly the other people they were talking to.  I aim to try this on a group of teachers and find out how they get on.

One to One

I decided to spend a bit of time using this function with a very low level ESOL learners to practise not only reading and writing but also speaking.  Both the student and I found this to be a very useful and rewarding way of teaching writing on many different levels. So much so that I feel this issue needs it’s own blog – click here to read this. I also decided to try using the DS to help my five year old son with his reading and writing – this deserves its own blog – click here to read it.

Positives

The chatroom is a real joy to use, as you write onto the DSi screen you can hear the soft sound of chalk onto board, the layout is clean and easy to use and although there aren’t any other colours to use apart from black and multi-coloured it’s got a real doodly feel to it. More able and younger students instantly fell into using it by trying out all the functions without asking questions, very much in the mold of Prensky’s digital natives and older as well as less able students tended to be slower. All of the groups I worked with enjoyed using the technology and it did help to make the classroom more dynamic and motivational.

Negatives

– As I said with the PSP, charging up 15 DSi machines is a pain. Also, the battery life is too short!

– The classroom activities were very definitely a ‘once a month’ task. Students would quickly get bored of the chatroom function if it was used in the same way every lesson, however it does have a place in one to one or low level ESOL teaching where the benefits would be massive.

– In group activities the strongest and most able are the studenst who have the most to say. Anyone who is slow might not be able to keep up and runs the risk of not being able to participate, however with the correct classroom management this could easily be avoided.

– There doesn’t seem to be a way of keeping the comments made. It would be great to keep a word doc. of the things said and who said them. This would be particularly useful for the conversations lesson that I did.

– There are only four chatrooms. I wanted to split my students into pairs and send one half of each pair into different rooms, they would have to use written English to communicate with each other. I have 15 students and there are only four chatrooms avaliable on the DS machine.

Links

Robin Hood Primary School in Wakefield are also using the DS to teach. Click here for their blog.

Japanese schools using the Nintendo DS. Click here for the blog.


They are only games – aren’t they? My kids and video games.

Last Friday night our slim line play station two died. The disk stopped spinning and the games stopped working. My four and a half year old son began to cry, he’d been waiting all week for Friday night when he could play his snow boarding game and even his sister, who’s just two, filled up. Although she can really control the characters, she still loves to play. The tears brought it home to me just how much they loved video games – maybe too much, a bit like me.

My son once played ‘Little Big Planet’ for the Playstation 3 in an electrical shop, we don’t have a playstation 3. The effect of manoeuvring a sack character round a screen was quite profound on him and he spent a long time drawing what he’d seen. He even collected the coins from down the back of the sofa to buy it. This is the power of the video game.

I only let my kids play on a Friday and Saturday night and I always watch and play with them, even so, is it healthy for little kids to play video games and how much time should they spend doing it? It must be bad right? Do I want my kids to pick up my mild addiction to video games? Reading the forums on Yahoo reveals mixed results, some say that little kids shouldn’t play at all because it’s bad for their development and they don’t understand the ‘real’ world, others say that it develops their hand-eye coordination and helps them to type faster. Of course there is always the knee jerk desire to say that all new inventions are bad, this was said of the printing press, trains, computers and of course video games.

Someone who’s thought a lot about this is the educational specialist and writer called Marc Prensky, his book ‘Don’t bother me mom, I’m learning’ is an attempt to understand the relationship between computer games, children and learning. He calls children who grow up in the modern world ‘digital natives’ and sees computer games not just a fun pastime for children, but a vital part of their development in preparation for the modern age. So would I be doing my son a disservice by not letting him play?

‘The illiterate of the future are not those who can’t read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and re-learn,’ posted one of my techie friends on Facebook. It’s a quote from Alvin Toffler’s Book Powershift in which he discusses the changing face of information and power. I thought about my little son playing his snowboarding game and how he learned to do the jumps and speed up or slow down, I didn’t ever show him how to use a playstation paddle, or even a mouse, he just went right ahead and did it.

I’m a computer gamer also and just fit into Prensky’s digital native mould myself, I’ve been playing games most of my life from the old BBC micro to the playstations and xboxes of today and I guess they have had a profound influence on my life. I find it really easy, almost natural to learn to use technology and I’m not smart. The people around me, at work and in my family are constantly asking me ‘how do I do this?’ ‘How can I do that?’ and if I can help then I do, but I almost always find myself saying that ‘in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king’. I really don’t know a lot about technology, I’m just not afraid of making mistakes. In computer games, you know that if you do it wrong then you can go back and have another go, you always get an extra life, but this isn’t necessarily true of the real world. In terms of health or relationships you might not get the chance to put things right if they go wrong.

Phycologists Hilarie Cash and Kim Mcdaniel are quick to warn of the dangerous of too much gaming, in ‘Video Games and your Kids – How you stay in control’ they descibe how older children can become heavily addicted and how exposure to video games might prevent children from  learning through discussion or listening.

Of course they really are only games and it’s how we use them with our children that makes them useful or dangerous. Too much of anything is bad for us and that’s probably the case with video games. Being ‘digital natives’ doesn’t stop kids from being kids, they need to play football, run about, read books, draw monsters as well as playing on video games.

Will I be replacing our video game console this Christmas? Of course, I miss it more than they do.

Further reading

Marc Prensky – Don’t bother me mom, I’m learning.

Hilarie Cash and Kim McDaniel – Video Games and Your Kids

Alvin Toffler – Powershift