Walter Mitty, eat your heart out

Sophisticated computer gameplay gives you the chance to be somone else in a virtual world

The lender, while full of charm, is utterly unwavering in his insistence on the full price being paid. It so happens that he also runs the only store in the village. As well as being forced to take your mortgage from him alone, he also has a monopoly on the goods supply. Tom Nook, the property magnate in question, is a raccoon. He is a central character in the wildly successful series of games from Nintendo called Animal Crossing, in which the player inhabits a world populated entirely by cute mammals and learns about sociality, societal responsibility and debt management. Not the usual province of the mass-market videogame.

Now in its third iteration, Animal Crossing presents the player with a nascent village in which they can live their lives, build a home and make friends, both with other computer-controlled characters and by visiting other players' villages via a wi-fi connection.

Originally launched as a "communication game" in 2001, the game presents the fascinating conceit of real-time play. If you play it in the middle of the night, most of the other animals will be in bed (apart from the foxes, of course) and the shop will be closed. If you want to catch insects, of course, you're best doing it in the summer. Finally, the game forces you to take responsibility for your village and your home; if you don't play for several weeks, you'll find your garden overrun with weeds and the other animals unsure of your presence. In its own cute, gentle, "animal" style, the game explicitly rewards you for taking responsibility for your life within it, and punishes you for failing to do so.

Sneered-at entertainment

However, while Animal Crossing is widely lauded among the videogame cognoscenti for its sophisticated new gameplay model, like most brilliant videogames it fails to gain popular recognition outside of its immediate fan base because of what it is. The videogame is one of the most sneered-at forms of entertainment (or dare I say culture?). Developed as it has been from passionate, but insular communities, the games industry has never been good at explaining its value, often preferring paranoid defence rather than informed evangelism in its communications with the outside world. However, as media channels have converged into each other and digital literacy has increased, the products available to the mainstream user have grown radically more sophisticated. The growing availability of broadband connectivity brings with it a massively enhanced potential for social interaction.

It is these potentials that are at the heart of Linden Labs' Second Life, an online world (not a game) with a series of fascinating propositions at its heart.

While it appears visually to be just another online videogame, displaying 3D environments and avatars representing user presence, Second Life is anything but. Everything within Second Life is built by its residents (yes, that's "residents", not "players") and the intellectual property rights of anything they create are assigned to them. This would be a relatively insignificant fact, were it not for the fact that Linden Labs has enabled residents to monetise their activities by exchanging the internal currency into US dollars. People can, and are, making a significant salary from their activities within the world as they explore and experiment with generating new kinds of value.

An extension of real life

Linden Labs has essentially handed over all responsibility for the society to the residents who create it. Second Life functions not as a rehearsal of real-life community building and business skills but as an extension of it. Philip Rosedale, Linden Labs' CEO, is clear about the value of it and also very aware of the prejudices that confront any computer-based activity. "I think people broadly regard sitting in front of a computer as bad. But that's meaningless, what matters is what you're doing... In Second Life you could decide to open a car dealership. You need to negotiate land, suppliers, price points, location, architecture of your showroom. I mean, consider that as an intellectual challenge, a fast-forward ride. You just can't do that in real life."

We need to acknowledge, understand and interrogate the value and complexity of the interactions that millions of players are having with videogames every day in their homes. "Edutainment" products may be worthy but they are not the games that are consumed most widely. Encouragingly, the mainstream commercial videogames industry is beginning to directly engage with this agenda through innovative partnership with the Department for Education and Skills. Currently in development is a pre-production learning edition of Sony's, Buzz and a learning edition of Ubisoft's, Myst; two games that have already been massively successful as commercial products. This exploration of the value of the mass-market videogame is a pioneering leap forwards.

Iain Simons is director of Game City www.gamecity.org

Playing games in front of the teacher

Futurelab, a charitable organisation aiming to integrate innovative technologies into education, is testing the use of three computer games: The Sims, Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 and Knights of Honor in classrooms throughout the UK. The project, called Teaching with Games, hopes to demonstrate that incorporating games into the curriculum allows students to develop and use skills not encouraged by ordinary teaching methods.

The project studies video games as educational tools. These games, often known as "god games", induce players to use critical thinking skills to effect changes within the realm of the game.

"They encourage collaboration and the decision-making process," says Richard Sandford, learning researcher for Futurelab. "The skills games teach are valuable at any age and are in demand from employers, yet employers say schools aren't particularly good at delivering them."

Those in education also seem to be tiring of the current teaching climate where children can simply regurgitate content. A MORI poll released earlier this year indicated that 59 per cent of 1,000 teachers would consider using computer games; one-third is already using them. In addition to motivating and engaging pupils, teachers say mainstream games can aid in developing motor-cognitive skills and gaining topic-specific knowledge.

Teachers involved in the project use the games in a variety of ways. One uses the French version of The Sims to help students practise the language. Another uses Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 to teach physics.

"They aren't just learning that forces exist but about how to apply them in the real world," says Sandford.

The Teaching with Games findings will be published in August at www.futurelab.org.uk