Let me tell you some stories about why I love research. Anecdotes, of course, are not data, but they are a good way to capture powerful moments which make a difference to people’s lives.
First here’s the back story. In 2003 a student of mine showed me the Neverwinter Nights toolset. He thought I might be interested in a tool for people to make their own games when I told him about a prototype I was writing to do something similar. I decided I would try it out at a summer workshop run by the local council. So I did. And there started a research programme of eight years. The kids loved that first workshop. I was fascinated by their learning. So I ran more workshops, conducted more interviews, analysed more games, published more papers on it. I got research funding for Adventure Author to make the Neverwinter Nights interface more usable. We got follow on funding for a public engagement project called Making Games in Schools to train teachers so that it would be more widely available to school pupils. My long time collaborator Judith Good got funding for Flip, to look at game making from a programming perspective, based on our previous work. Flip is a sister project to Making Games in Schools and Adventure Author, and is also about helping kids to make their own games. It focuses on making it easier for kids to write programs which respond to events in their games, thus enabling more interesting stories to evolve.
At this point over 1000 kids have taken part in game making workshops, all stemming from that initial casual decision of mine to try out something new because I thought it would be fun. Yesterday I had an opportunity to think back on it all because some of the teachers we trained on Making Games in Schools were discussing their experiences of game making with their pupils. Here are some of the stories which stuck in my mind.
- One of the teachers came to a workshop we ran at university for her 3rd year pupils and was “blown away” by the pupils’ learning. She piloted it as soon as she could at her own school and now four years later has involved 8 other school departments in an inter-disciplinary scheme which includes all their pupils from years 1-3. She explained that she had been offered early retirement but she refused because she couldn’t bear to give up the project.
- Many of the teachers told us how their pupils were clamouring to work on their games at lunchtime, how they didn’t want to leave when the bell went, and how they even turned up for class early to spend as long as possible on their games.
- Several teachers spoke of kids who normally hated school and who gradually became hooked by this project and even started singing the praises of the class to their friends in the years below. We also heard about autistic children who took to game making exceptionally well and how it opens up a whole new way of working with them.
- But my favourite story was about a boy who took part in a transition project at primary school to prepare him to start high school. At primary school he was an elective mute. He learned, with the others in his class, how to use the game making software at the high school. When this class arrived at secondary school for real, they were of course spread throughout different classes in the year group. In their computing classes these children are the experts to help their classmates to learn how to make games. Now, half way through his first year at secondary, he has begun to talk, particularly to share ideas and give tips to his fellow pupils about their games. I’m not saying that the project was the reason for this. But the teacher thought it was part of the picture: a real reason for communication.
Two things are important about this, I think. One is that it’s worth taking a chance and trying out an idea, just to see what happens. It could have a big impact. The second is that for me, research should always have a positive influence on people’s lives. These game making projects have given a lot of pleasure to a lot of children. They have changed people’s attitudes to learning, to their careers and transformed how they relate to other people. And that seems well worth it to me.