When not designing board games I work as a supply teacher, and I recently met a highly intelligent nine-year-old named David. On our first day together he was busy making pirate ships out of Lego, and he took me on an adventure involving ports, taverns and sea battles.
“Let’s take this sugar to a port where sugar is valuable,” said David, “I wonder why sugar is so valuable?”
I told him about the interplay between demand, shipping and cost, and had just started to compare this to the modern oil industry when he cut me off:
“So is that why smart phones are so expensive?”
Intrigued, I asked David where his interest in pirates came from, and found a game at its heart: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (certificate 18).
David’s school is a specialist school for five- to eleven-year-olds who have been expelled from mainstream education. I don’t know what horrors have gone on in their lives but I can tell you this: the children who end up there are not the naughty ones, but the ones who have been failed by society. David regularly refuses to do work, and on this occasion he was playing in the back room because he had been sent out for kicking things over.
Had I simply told David (or any child, for that matter) a story in which the price of sugar was high, he would not have learnt much. But because he had lived a story in which the price of sugar was high, he had a good understanding of trade. Clearly, games have an important role in education.
David and I continued our game, and I was struck, once again, by how fantastic Lego is as a toy. Using only the simplest of blocks, David could transform a ship into a port into a tavern with eye-watering swiftness.
“I’m running out of pieces,” he said, “But if I had more, I could make the ship bigger. Maybe I could make the people smaller, then the ship would be a relative size.”
How many children, I wonder, would have seen that second option?
Assassin’s Creed is not a game a nine-year-old should be playing (this was brought home to me when David, thanks to his video games, started using the words “kill” and “genocide” interchangeably. It’s going to be hard for the adult world to rid him of this dangerous misconception). Clearly, though, David’s games were doing wonders for his problem-solving skills.
My encounter with David raised three questions, and I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on them:
- How can we, as teachers, provide our students with opportunities to learn through discovery?
- What can we, as game designers, do to create educational games?
- How can we, the gaming community, use our skills to help disadvantaged children like David?
*Names have been changed.