Channel 4 has turned to gaming to satisfy its educational remit – and has started commissioning UK indie studios to build games that entertain and nurture young minds. Will Freeman sat down with Alice Taylor, the broadcaster’s commissioning editor for education, to find out more…
The relationship that games share with education has always been a test of the industry’s horizons.
At face value, designing titles to nurture the minds of future generations contradicts developers’ more blood thirsty creations, and only reinforces the view of those who deride the proactive potential of gaming.
Despite Nintendo’s recent efforts to broaden gaming’s acceptance, the idea of ‘educational games’ probably perplexes most consumers, despite the clear benefits the medium offers to children.
And developers who dabble with teaching are often seen as harbouring a dirty secret. While BBC Micro titles like Podd and Granny’s Garden fuel rose-tinted memories for a certain type of person now active in the industry, the very same demographic is typically cynical of those studios that turn to the dark art of ‘edutainment’ and its kissing cousin, casual gaming.
It’s hard to deny that, generally speaking, gamers themselves – and consumers in general – are suspicious of the merits of educational content; no one wants to be lectured to.
UK broadcaster Channel 4 wants to change all that, however. As part of the long running television company’s obligation to its public service remit, it is required to create educational content. The channel, famously responsible for some of the more cutting-edge and exploratory TV fiction and non-fiction content, has turned to games as a way to reach new audiences.
But this isn’t just box ticking by big media: Channel 4’s efforts have lead it to the doors of a number of UK indie developers. And the result has been very surprising indeed.
Alice Taylor is Channel 4 Education’s commissioning editor and subsequently at the forefront of the broadcaster’s newly realised dedication to proving the worth of educational games as not only a tool for learning, but as a way to promote interesting, creatively risky products that showcase innovation and originality.
Taylor previously worked for the BBC and, as proof of her geek cred, was a member of the UK’s first Quake team. Anybody who meets her needs little convincing of her faith in games as a vehicle for education, and as she points out, she’s by no means the first to recognise the medium’s potential.
“I’m not an academic, so I have not personally done any studies on the merits of games educationally, but there are plenty of them out there.
“There’s Raph Coster’s entire book The Theory of Fun, there’s Henry Jenkins and then James Gee. There’s a whole swathe of academics who have said time and time again that games teach. Extending that, there’s the idea that ‘games teach, so you’d better know what you’re putting in them’.”
Taylor’s latter point is something Channel 4 clearly takes very seriously. The fruits of its labour have not only won the hearts’ of their intended audience, but have been recognised by a host of awards, including a BAFTA for the most high profile game from the broadcaster, Bow Street Runner.
Traditionally, Channel 4 had focused its commitment to education on broadcast content. The company’s latest strategy, which technically launched in late 2007, started with an annual budget of £6 million, a considerable part of which was devoted to televised output.
While Taylor is keen to point to the fact that education happens across Channel 4’s schedules, and is ingrained in the likes of reality TV and other high profile programs, her and her immediate colleagues are charged with tackling the problem of delivering tailor-made productions for 14-to-19-year-olds – a group increasingly hard to reach by traditional means.
“The specific, public-service ring-fenced remit bit was ‘broadcast in the morning, at 9.30 through till 12 midday during the week’,” says Taylor, explaining why television broadcasts floundered in delivering an educational message, and attracted far less viewers than hoped for. “Now at that time 14-to-19-year-olds are at school, or at college, or in work. We were maybe picking up the unemployed or sick.
“So we took all of our money and moved it online, at which point we did, and still do, a number of things. For example, television on the web, mobile projects and games.”
And so Channel 4 moved most of its educational commitment from television screens to computer monitors. Thanks to the ongoing economic crisis, and the subsequent effect on the advertising budgets that are Channel 4’s lifeblood, in 2009 only £4.5 million has been put aside for education. But still approximately half of that finds its way to the pockets of the independent developers lucky enough to secure deals with Taylor and the team at Channel 4.
The games the broadcaster commissions err away from including explicit content from the standard curriculum, and instead address issues identified as important to teenagers in the UK today.
“It’s broad themes that turn up during your teenage years,” explains Taylor.
“Themes like sex, drugs, alcohol, relationships, mental fitness and depression. These weird and wonderful subject matters are really exciting to explore.”
And they are themes usually untouched by traditional games developers, which means that currently a diverse range of studios are toiling away on some rather atypical projects.
Zombie Cow is one-man UK developer Dan Marshall, currently at work on a cheek-prodding sex education game by the name of Privates, which sees diminutive marines clearing genitals of sexual infections.
Also underway is an unnamed title by Beatnik Games, a small team based a short work from Channel 4’s iconic HQ in central London. Still in development, the game looks at why so few girls follow science through to a career level.
Already live on Channel 4’s website is Littleloud’s aforementioned historical point-and-click detective adventure about the dawn of the police force, Bow Street Runner, and Routes, a series of games which explore the importance and ethics of genetics and identity.
Moving forward, Channel 4 is concentrating on using teams with between one and 25 employees. “One reason is cost, so the budgets in our case range from £40,000 to £800,000,” reveals Taylor. “For £800,000 you can’t get a triple-A team, but equally it’s an overwhelming amount for one person in a bedroom, so that dictates the size of the teams we go for. That’s the practical reason, and it’s that simple.”
However, financial realism isn’t the only motive behind Channel 4’s choice to use small, young studios. The other reason is that, according to Taylor and her fellow employees, indies are best suited to create the quality, creative educational games that the broadcaster prides itself in promoting.
“I think that indies do deliver a superior understanding of what makes for a better educational game, and in saying that perhaps I’m going to upset those in the educational serious games area,” says Taylor.
“I’m generalising massively, but I think if you start of with the learning, and try and apply a game to it, it sometimes works, but in many cases it just doesn’t. But a game has to be fun – it has to be magic. You can put learning into a game, but it’s very hard to put a game into learning. I don’t really know why. I don’t personally have enough hands-on experience developing games to explain it, but it seems to me that when you play a game that has set out to be educational in a very specific way, it just tends to be hard going a lot of the time. We haven’t had a breakout hit from the serious games side of education. Meanwhile, in the games space there’s breakouts all over the place.”
Along with the Education department, the website of Channel 4’s youth-orientated channel E4 is also employing indies to make games. The E4.com editor, Jody Smith, has supported game development through a number of initiatives, including the Great British Summer of Games online festival, and the Grand Master Flash design competition.
Smith certainly shares Taylor’s opinion that indie studios are best suited to develop products for the television company, and has another interesting point with regard to what small studios can offer those eager to host original, innovative web games: “What a lot of people don’t appreciate is that these bedroom developers often have a really loyal following, which is very unlike what any agency has, generally speaking.
“Fans are talking about them already, so when we actually launch their games, they’re going to be bringing in an audience, and an audience that probably don’t watch E4. Their reputation is really good, and they bring with them respect. That’s the reason sites like Kongregate and Newgrounds have such great followings.”
It’s clearly evident that Channel 4’s loyalty to indies is absolute, and while they have commissioned content from agencies before, it seems that for the foreseeable future the smallest studios are set to reap the benefits of working with the broadcaster.
There are other benefits the new educational gaming movement offers indies, too. The positive end goal of the projects is certainly perceived to be a bonus, and the creative freedom Channel 4 cultivates is something each of the teams it has worked with seems to appreciate.
“I think education is a great niche for indies,” says Robin Lacey of Beatnik Games. “The beauty of indie games is that they set out to achieve something greater than the end credits. They have purpose and, as an indie studio, we couldn’t think of anything more rewarding than using gameplay to actually make an impact in people’s lives.”
“Channel 4 have been completely amazing,” adds Dan Marshall from Zombie Cow. “There’s pretty much free reign to be as blisteringly creative as you like. Everything from the initial pitch onwards has been my idea – with minor tweaks from Channel 4 about precisely how rude we can get away with being, that sort of thing. Pushing creativity seems to be at the forefront, and they really ‘get’ what games are about, and what can be done with them.”
It may come as a surprise to many that, while Taylor won’t completely out rule the idea, Channel 4 is hesitant to exploit the IP of its more famous programmes for the use of games. Sadly for fans of late-night dramas, that means there’s little chance of getting the commission for a Skins Flash game.
“That’s something the indies love,” says Taylor. “If you go to them and say that you want a Hollyoaks game, that’s one thing, and you know the boundaries and the limitations, but if you go to them saying you want a game about sex, while in some cases they’ll run off crying, in many cases their eyes will light up. That certainly happened with Dan at Zombie Cow.”
Put simply, those currently making games for Channel 4 – which presently also includes Six to Start, Tuna Technologies and Preloaded among others – are given a chance to build their own IP from scratch, without having to put any mind to ongoing game sales. Channel 4 takes ownership of that IP, but it typically reverts back to the developer after five years.
“You also get an incredible sense of satisfaction in making something that you know has intrinsic value,” adds Taylor.
“When you make a game and you know that not only is it fun and good to play but it’s also good for the person playing it, it’s slightly magical. You get a really strong sense of satisfaction that you’ve done your job really well. The people that have made them so far have loved it and want to do more. I think you don’t get the same cynicism about why you’re doing it, which is great.”
These new wave educational games are clearly beneficial for all involved, and their recognition at gong shows further cements their reputation. It’s not all blue skies though, and aside from having to fight for attention with console games, television, social networking sites and mobile phones, Channel 4’s games have another, rather more serious threat to face; the current economy.
“There is nothing on this planet that is safe for now,” admits Taylor, “But as things go, Channel 4 Education’s output in the past couple of years has performed far better than television ever did. It’s got a lot of attention and it’s got a lot of positive feedback from both teachers and from the industry. In the Digital Britain report the stuff that Education is doing was noted as being what Channel 4 should do more of.”
An obvious way to grow its reach, and revenue, is porting or creating games for the likes of XBLA and iPhone; something Channel 4 is beginning to look at seriously.
“The only reason that we haven’t done that yet is because our games have to be free at the point of consumption for UK players,” reveals Taylor. “The web is really easy, as is PC and Mac download. XBLA, PSN and WiiWare are all guarded, gated communities and you have to go through somebody and get permission to a degree. However, our plan with the Zombie Cow game Privates is to get it on the Indie Games Channel. That’s the easy way to get on XBLA.
“iPhone is slightly different because while every teenager has a console, six months ago very few of them had an iPhone. Quite a lot had an iPod Touch, but it was only really the rich kids in school and the few prepared to spend everything on one piece of technology.”
Taylor predicts that this Christmas will increase the number of young adults with iPhones exponentially; meaning Channel 4 may consider the platform more seriously next year. Waiting for the New Year, however, creates a classic catch-22 situation for Channel 4, as in just a few more months it will be even more difficult to stand out from the throng on Apple’s overcrowded mobile platform.
However, as things stand Channel 4’s drive is proving remarkably successful, be it with developers, teachers, students or parents. And if other companies charged with a responsibility to educate take note, what was once defined by the reputation of edutainment may now become a fertile proving ground for new indies.
The last word goes to Taylor, who is resoundingly confident that Channel 4’s new relationship with games will just gain momentum: “The first three games out the gate for us are doing so well in terms of reception and numbers. The quality of the content is so good, I just think it is going to work. We will have a game at some point that will either be too ‘classically educational’, or one that is so damn fun it might be really hard to unearth the education in it. Overall though, you’ll play them as you play Bow Street Runner and the games in Routes, where you realise ‘these are really fun games, and I just learned something.”
Which means means Channel 4 should have succeeded in its goal.