Could video games inform education policy?

Games' fundamental principles -- such as rewarding success, removing the sting from failure -- could

How do you mime ringing a doorbell? Go on, it's not a trick (although I'll let you off if you're reading this on public transport). Did you -- as I and every adult I know did -- reach out your index finger in the hope of eliciting an imaginary ding-dong? It seems as natural as men wearing trousers, or cooking a steak before eating it. But ask a child and he or she might reach out for that phantom button . . . with a thumb. Years of texting, or playing handheld game consoles, you see.

That rather unscientific example shows once again that many of the things we regard as "natural" and immutable are, in reality, culturally contingent. It also demonstrates how easily our brains react to a change in stimulus, effortlessly adapting to a changing world. It's what has made humans so successful.

Which brings me to computer games. Read the popular press and you might think that they're frying children's brains, rendering them drooling imbeciles bent on murderous destruction. That's tosh. For a start, according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, only 5 per cent of games released last year had a "mature" rating (for sex, drugs or violence). And does it matter that western children spend so much time in front of screens? Are we afraid it will leave them ill-equipped for their future lives as hunter-gatherers, chimney sweeps or nomadic goatherds?

Once we've got over the idea that games are a menace to society, perhaps we can have a proper conversation about how to make them work for us. One of the current buzzwords in nerdy circles is "gamification", where games' fundamental principles -- such as rewarding success, removing the sting from failure -- are applied to other pastimes. Yes, there is a dark side to such incentivisation: who hasn't bought two of a product they rarely use just because it was on special offer? But that's no reason not to harness these ideas for good: for example, in education policy.

Thumbs up

What would a "gameful" school look like? No need to imagine, because one exists already. It's called Quest to Learn, it's in New York and it caters for pupils aged 11 to 18 (its website is at q2l.org). Instead of taking tests that brand them a success or failure based on a single performance, its students continually "level-up" by accruing points. They are also encouraged to tackle tasks as a group, sharing out roles such as explorer, historian and writer.

Peter Hyman, a No 10-strategist-turned-teacher, wrote in this magazine this year that we are "educating children for the middle of the 20th century, not the start of the 21st". It's true -- who needs to learn dates by rote, when they're just a google away? Who needs to slave away on their cursive script, when touch-typing is a far more useful skill? And why do we assume that fun and learning must be mutually exclusive?

Like it or not, most children find their Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable or mobile phone an irresistible draw. So, instead of regarding games as a distraction from more serious fare, how about trying to combine the two? Even if you can't give your child a gameful education, you can at least encourage them to play educational games. And it'll put those hyper-developed thumbs to good use.

Five educational games:

1. BBC Schools -- a range of game, searchable by age range and category.

2. The map game -- think you know where Azerbaijan is? This drag and drop puzzle will show up the gaps in your geography knowledge.

3. Food Force -- billed as the "first humanitarian videogame", it's a simulator from the World Food Programme.

4. Selene -- a NASA-funded game to teach you about the moon.

5. Global Conflicts -- an award-winning game about war, designed for use by teachers (£).

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle