Something for the weekend: Questionaut

Children think computer games are cool. Children hate maths / physics / learning. Therefore - hide maths inside computer game and make maths cool.

The unfortunate results of this formula have been assaulting unsuspecting young minds since the first BBC B turned up in the corner of the classroom. As one of the most discerning groups of videogame critics, young people are especially attuned at discovering deliberate ‘learning’ hidden within ‘fun’ and greet it with the same suspicion as the vegetables hidden deep inside the sauce. They don’t have an intrinsic problem with learning, but quite rightly demand a baseline level of quality in their fun.

Thankfully, the sorry days of ‘maths invaders’ are behind us, and public service broadcasters are starting to throw some serious commissioning clout at their interactive slate. Channel 4 had considerable success with their episodic Bow Street Runner game in support of ‘City of Vice’ and have declared interactivity to be a key part of their ongoing education strategy with some twenty projects being developed over the coming months.

Earlier this year, the BBC released a new project which took the tired old quiz game genre and invested it with considerable new life. Developed by Amanita Design, the Czech company responsible for the exquisite Samarost and currently at work on Machinarium, it’s an impressive success.

Questionaut continues the organic design aesthetic of their previous work and wraps it around a quiz game aimed at eleven year olds. A gentle, atmospheric experience, each of the eight levels opens with a point-and-click environmental puzzle before challenging the player with a series of multiple choice questions. Answer correctly, and your balloon fills with knowledge allowing you to fly to the next level.

Beautifully rendered with a characteristically eccentric sound design, Amanita have created a game for eleven year olds which everyone will enjoy.

Questionaut

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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