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.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war