I'd filled a lab with a cornucopia of games technology, from deafening arcade machines to tiny pocketable gadgets, and then over a period of some time, watched carefully as the under 20s, and often the under 11s, played them for all they were worth. At the time horror stories were all over the media of the young people's ‘addiction', of their vast expenditure and (that evergreen classic accusation) of their ‘anti-social behaviour'.
But what we found was encouragingly challenging as players immersed themselves in a creative problem solving loop of ‘observe, question, hypothesise and test' that their teachers would have been proud of.
The ‘addiction' turned out, largely, to be the same concentration and engagement we'd seen with novels.
Our recommendations at the time were clear: policymakers needed to have a better handle on the new problem-solving strategies that characterised games-playing, so that they could be built on in other areas of learning like science, where that cycle of observe, question, hypothesise and test had sometimes seemed unattainable. Teachers needed to play more games. Parents needed to chat about problem-solving as their children played.
Of course, there was more to it than just that. For example there was a wonderful complex and asynchronous meta-conversation between software designer and player as each tried to outguess, and surprise, each other. And some games, like some magazines, films or images, were simply awful and hopelessly inappropriate – too violent, too dull or too patronising.
The media embraced our research, with the Daily Mirror running a double page spread on ‘our screen-wise kids'.
So, coming up to 15 years on, what has changed? At the centre, very little in policy terms and this is disappointing, but it doesn't matter so much today. 15 years has led us from a world of central controls (‘Do this') to one where people simply get on with it themselves (‘look at what we are doing') and that is the power of new communication technologies. Schools and learners are harnessing game playing in a plethora of creative, imaginative ways.
Be Very Afraid began the London Games Festival and is an annual marker for the power of imagination and the hunger we all have to be ambitious learners. Policy makers attend to chat to the young people who illustrate from their extraordinary projects just where learning might be going.
Today, the ‘games and gains' are there for all to see and the learners have a voice that is powerfully amplified by new technology. Learners observed their curriculum, questioned assumptions, hypothesised that they might not need to power-down to learn, tested the hypothesis and demonstrated in spades just how delightful learning might be when they didn't. And it was games that showed them how to do it.