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Welcome to 'the zone of optimal challenge'

Merlin John

On paper, the Games Design Workshop run for the Creative and Media Diploma (higher level) looked impressive. Hosted by US educator Roxana Hadad and featuring an expert guest computer game designer with a masters degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, Josh Diaz, it brought industry expertise not available in schools directly to the 21 Buckinghamshire 15-year-olds on the course.

Online though, which is where it took place, the lesson was even more impressive. Roxana was at her desk in Chicago and Josh Diaz, who works for game company Slide and describes himself as a “playsmith” and "anarchaeologist", was in San Francisco. The students, who checked into "class" at 7.30pm, were all ensconced in the comfort of their homes, scattered around Buckinghamshire. The lesson, on "Games as systems", was exemplary and communication by video, audio, text and graphics was virtually seamless.

The project, a product of a "student voice" consultation, was started by Chalfonts Community College's use of support from Creative Partnerships' Change School programme (with £2,000 start-up funding). Senior leader Greg Hodgson, Hannah Stower and James Michie worked with Buckinghamshire's e-learning co-ordinator Ian Usher to create the workshop which was devised and designed by Greg and Roxana. It was integrated with a range of face-to-face work at school to deliver the diploma. And Josh Diaz was one of a series of international gaming experts to make guest appearances in the online workshops.

The students work in teams to design their games, inspired by the 2012 Olympics and themed on the Paralympics. Stoke Mandeville Stadium, the national centre for disability sport is nearby, and their projects are intended to give insights into disability, for example one game is based on wheelchair basketball. (Extra support came from Create Compete Collaborate as part of the Accentuate Program to bring a games expert into the classroom to develop the Flash games and pay for a disability sport conference hosted at Stoke Mandeville Hospital at the start of the course.)

The course consists of 10 sessions over one term. All the course materials and the work produced are stored on the school's Moodle VLE and can be accessed from anywhere at any time by all parties (the contributions provide evidence for assessment and lessons are recorded so that latecomers and absentees always have access to them). Roxana, working in a different time zone, can check on her students' work when it suits her.

To join the class, you just point your internet browser to its web address and log in to Buckinghamshire's Adobe Connect online service. You see a web page which has two video windows at the top – in this case for Roxana and Josh – with a list of all the attendees underneath. A scrolling text window down the left hand side handles text contributions and conversations and the main window is used in this lesson for Josh's presentation slides. Audio contributions can be made by clicking on an on-screen microphone icon controlled by Roxana.

Roxana, who is Director of Math, Science and Technology at the Chicago Teachers' Centre, has the qualities you would expect of a transatlantic host – friendly, engaging, and professional. As a great communicator she's also sensitive and quick to pick up on students' needs, opening up further discussion where she feels it might be needed. As with any other class, she provides the greeting, the review of progress so far and the introduction of our guest expert, Josh Diaz, and the topic he will explore. He's talking about computer games as systems: what they are and why and where they work. It's a lucid explanation of the structure of games and the dynamics that make them engaging and compelling.

Josh starts off by talking through slides to introduce simple insights like "Mechanics are basic building blocks of games... Rules are attached to objects." And of course it builds up into showing how a relatively simple action in a game, like Mario jumping and a mushroom emerging, is in fact made up of multiple systems working together. The good news is that these are constants in the structures of all games. The bad news for the mathophobes is: "To get systems to do what you want you need to understand the math."

The challenge for designers is 'to ensure that players are constantly in flow'

It's all eminently explainable, however. We are introduced to MDA – an analytical tool that works through Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics – and the diagrams and charts take us happily through to the concept of "flow". Here the dynamics are fascinating as we discuss the levers that manipulate – and are manipulated by – gamers. The elements under the surface that pull together the rolling gaming experience with its rewards and forfeits, peaks and troughs, disappointments and exhilaration, providing gamers with the goal that Josh describes as "the zone of optimal challenge". And the challenge for designers is "to ensure that players are constantly in flow".

Coming offline there's plenty for any online visitors to think about. For the students, they need to apply some of the insights to the design of the games they are creating for the Paralympics. They do this together as teams and with their teachers in school, so that there is plenty of face-to-face to back up the online work. Most important, the students get support with the programming (in Flash) which seems to be their biggest challenge. The Flash support was provided by Tom Scutt, who worked on the Tomb Raider games. On Thursdays, the students would first meet with Tom in class to cover game development (programming concepts), and then meet with Roxana in the evening to cover game design concepts.

Feedback is extremely important and is consistently sought – and given. And this has helped the organisers to plan, tweak and improve the service as it develops. Feedback is crucial when, two weeks later, the students make the final online presentation of their games to Roxana. They share the designs in the main Adobe Connect window and talk them through as teams over the audio channel. Then comes the feedback, most of it via text. Here's an example:

Colin (a previous speaker from Scotland): Nice background - the game setting is very clear.
Jake: like the cartoon like game theme
Colin: Nice setting, controls are intuitive
Francis: I like the paralympic history element in it
Jake: and the objective
Mario: when you say you could have added a story, what kind of story?
Hannah: I like the backgorunds and the graphics, like the statue
Francis: like the founder of the Paralympics was in the background
Conor: yes, that took ages for me to make :L
D China (local authority adviser): shows really good learning - understanding of concepts, use of professional vocabulary - impressive well done

And again the feedback - what has worked best?

There's plenty of time for discussion and sharing and the "end of term" comes the way it does in most classes, with expressions of warmth and appreciation. And again the feedback. What has worked best?

Jake: just that we couldn't have done it without the games course
Jake: It's been eye opening to create a professional standard of work
Lucie: It's a lot harder than I thought it was and the online course gave us more of an insight into how hard it actually is, to work as a team, and make a finished game
D China (LA adviser): I can see that this is true, you are working as a team
Mario: I think the online lessons have helped me see gaming as a business and as an industry and just how it works
Jake: Yes, we get a professional perspective
Hannah: Yeah, it helped our group so much!
Hannah: Our games would have taken triple the time to make!
Hannah: Tom [Scutt, games industry professional] helped us change our games into more realistic ideas
Luke: influenced me by helping me view games other than just a game eg the process
Francis: yeah that is what i would say too, that is exactly how they influenced us!
D China (LA adviser): I think the way you all have brought all this expertise together and used it is really remarkable and genuinely innovative

So is the workshop effective, replicable and scalable? Yes, yes and yes. In fact this was the second iteration, and there are already plans to extend the format to other subjects and vary the roles (the project runs over three years).

Ian Usher feels that the work has established a successful benchmark. "It's demonstrated what's possible when we think carefully about the appropriate use of technology. During this course, particularly in the Thursday evening Connect-based sessions, the technology has brought experts & practitioners into the students' worlds and validated what they've been learning during both their classroom sessions and those elements of the curriculum taught in the live online sessions on Thursday evenings. I'm really excited by what we could do next."

Now Chalfonts has taken a major step into online learning, how do the teachers feel about it? James Michie says, "Being involved in the course has been fantastic. For me it was an excellent opportunity to develop and extend the 'blended' and 'personalised' learning-based practices that have been established in both the media and art departments through the use of Moodle, Blogger, Google Docs and Adobe Connect to deliver outstanding learning opportunities for Key Stage 4 and 5 students."

Greg Hodgson's verdict is: "Having played with various forms of online learning, video-conferencing, and web tools to enhance and engage learning at The Chalfonts Community College over the last five years, the Games Design Workshop has to be the most significant and exciting educational project I have been involved with. The 'artist not in residence' is now a tried and tested format that is not only economic but delivers world-class expertise directly into the students' hands."

Ian Usher's checklist of what's needed to create a course like the Games Design Workshop:

- The will and imagination to do it - it will get those who are curious and creative excited, and will get the backs up of those who are nervous and stuck in their ways
- A clear idea of how any face-to-face classroom sessions will interact with online sessions
- Resources (funding for staff or experts, or just time to prepare) for classroom sessions
- A good network of contacts, which can grow as the process continues

- A system that works seamlessly across any schools who'd want to be involved
- A system that's accessible by any students - hence our Flash-based tool
- 'Single sign-on' is essential and can help deal with safeguarding issues and ease of use

- Creativity in the thinking about how this could happen
- An understanding of where it's not appropriate to do it
- A willingness to be an ongoing learner, to reflect on the process and feed back into it
- The desire to take what the learners say seriously, and build it into the process