Ian Livingstone is one of the founding fathers of games in the United Kingdom. He cofounded Games Workshop in 1975 and launched Dungeons & Dragons in Europe. He created the Fighting Fantasy game books in 1982, and those have sold more than 17 million copies to date. Those play-your-own-adventure books are credited with getting many children excited about learning. He went on to found Eidos, maker of Tomb Raider.
Livingstone has been an active angel investor, but now he’s hoping to have a big second act by improving the U.K.’s schools. He’s on track to create two new free schools with a digital focus. In these schools, kids will learn big concepts such as economics in Railroad Tycoon or SimCity. The schools are set to open in east London.
“Learning by doing is very impactful,” Livingstone said. “Games teach us method skills that help us deal with a world that is changing at a very big rate.”
Ivan Fernandez Lobo, organizer of Gamelab, talked about educational games with Jordan Casey and Ian Livingstone at Gamelab. I also interviewed Livingstone at the Gamelab event in Barcelona last week. Here’s an edited transcript for the interview.
Ian Livingstone: It was Ivan’s idea to do something a little bit different, because he knows I’m involved with education quite a lot for the last five years. Helping to convince our government to put computer on the national curriculum, get all the kids in schools coding. Plus the two schools I’m opening in the U.K. next year, whereby computer science and game-based learning will be central to a more authentic, hands-on education curriculum. We’re all trying to get more children to code.
GamesBeat: You’ve been doing this for quite a while now, right?
Livingstone: I wrote the Next Gen Review in 2011, which made recommendations to government to disapply the ICT curriculum and put computer science on the curriculum. Michael Gove, who was then secretary of state for education — I finally met him and convinced him that at the moment we’re teaching children how to use technology, but we’re giving no education to creating their own technology.
Only by having code in the curriculum can they become creators as well as consumers. It’s as if we teach them how to read, but not how to write. To create a true digital system, they at least need to understand how code works, even if they don’t all become coders. But again, going beyond coding, computer science is a discipline in terms of computational thinking, algorithmic thinking, understanding there’s more than one answer to a problem.
GamesBeat: How far back do these ideas go for you?
Livingstone: Really, back to the early ‘80s, when I used to write interactive game books. I saw how empowering those were. A passive narrative, for some children, leaves them cold. Unless they get really grabbed by the characters, they don’t enjoy reading. The government answer is to give them more serious literature, get them learning Shakespeare at an early age. I’m saying they have to enjoy reading before they can love Shakespeare.
Those interactive books I wrote, the Fighting Fantasy game books – Deathtrap Dungeon, Warlock of Firetop Mountain — they all gave the reader the chance to become the hero. They empowered them to make a choice – left or right? They used a combat system, so they were a game as well. There was some research at the time proving that children who read interactive books, their literacy was improved by 17 percent over those who just had traditional linear narrative.
Understanding the transformation, that empowering children enriches their learning, has always stayed with me. Seeing the benefits of games—games require you to problem solve. There’s intuitive learning and creativity in games like Minecraft. Wonderful architecture, 3D worlds. It just contextualizes a lot of problems. It helps understanding in a huge way.
GamesBeat: How far you can take that idea and still get folks in government to go along with you?
Livingstone: Again, I’ve convinced the government to allow me to open two schools. They’ll be essentially government-funded, not for profit, state schools open to everybody. While we still have to do the traditional examinations and traditional curriculum, the way we’re going to do it around projects and cross-curricular learning will allow children to have exams as a by-product of engaged learning, rather than rote learning and being taught to the test.
I just want children to enjoy their learning. We’re naturally playful. When we come into this world, we learn through play. It’s a very powerful way of learning. Let’s just extend that process and take games-based principles into the classroom. Children are doing it outside of the classroom, after all, and learning a lot more. So let’s have it in the classroom.
GamesBeat: In the U.S., Nolan Bushnell has some similar ideas. Has anybody succeeded in this approach to education?
Livingstone: I’m aware of several initiatives in the U.S., but I don’t know of any schools that are being specifically opened on the premise or the mandate of arts and sciences coming together and collaboration being accepted and using games in the curriculum. I’m sure there are examples, but I don’t know of them. My school, Livingstone Academy, is the very first example here in the U.K.
It’s not going to be without its challenges. No one wants to see their children used as guinea pigs for any new way of learning. But I feel very confident that the children will enjoy being there. I believe I’ve attracted the right kind of teachers who are going to really run with this. For too long, I think, games have been mistakenly seen as a negative. I think they’re a real positive for learning.
A game like Rollercoaster Tycoon, where you take control of a theme park — build the rides, price them, adjust the staffing levels — if you do it right the customers will come and if you do it wrong they don’t. Then you adjust those parameters and see success. That empowerment, again, gives a much deeper understanding of multiple disciplines in the context of one game.
GamesBeat: Educational games themselves have this mixed track record. Why do you think that is? Have some people stumbled on the right way to use games for learning, while others have missed it?
Livingstone: Games are a natural entertainment. We don’t set out to just say, “You will learn this by playing this game.” As soon as you tell them it’s education they’re going to get turned off. What you have to do is gamify certain principles around subjects at school. There’s a danger in trying to become too serious about games. Let them be entertained at the same time they’re learning. You have to make the learning invisible.
GamesBeat: Does it make sense, then, to just let kids play a bunch of different games at school?
Livingstone: I don’t want people to think for one second that they’re just going to be playing games all day in school. We’re going to take principles of games-based learning and apply them to subjects. We’ll allow some games to be played in the right context. If the geography lesson today is urban regeneration, it might be advisable to let them play SimCity. Again, the context of that game is perfect for teaching how a city works. If I just tell you how it works, it hangs in the abstract. For me, games add a fantastic context.
The important thing to me, at my schools, is that you have to get to children at a very early age. It’s still really cool and not geeky. Especially if we can get them more involved in making games. We need to reflect our whole society in the development and production of games, not just something dominated by male English speakers. The younger you get to them, the more cool it is. They can enjoy the creative potential of learning to code.
GamesBeat: Do you see a need for a different curriculum for boys and girls?
Livingstone: No, I don’t think you need to say this is for you and this is for you. I want it to all be exactly the same. If you look at basic behavior, maybe, boys are more interested in kicking something or kicking somebody. [laughs] But the games we’d use in school aren’t going to be about sports and guns. They’re going to be the sort of thing I’ve mentioned – Civilization, SimCity. And we’re creating bespoke games for cross-curricular learning.
GamesBeat: Makes me want to go back to school myself.
Livingstone: Well, why can’t learning be fun? Does it have to be a miserable thing to do? Why do children have anxiety in secondary school? Why do they have this fear of failure? There’s no need for any of this stuff. We’re all different, but together we can do great things. The workplace shows that, the way artists and storytellers and programmers and musicians all come together to build the wonderful thing that’s a game.
We don’t all have the same skill set. We’re good at some and bad at others. Yet the exam system requires us to all do the same stuff so we can have a standardized way of assessing children against the same metrics. I think we should embrace our differences and come together to do great things. In projects with groups of people, everyone can feel good about it. We just need to find a new way of assessing children. It shouldn’t be all exam-based, teaching to the test through memory.
GamesBeat: Are you working on your own games for this mission?
Livingstone: I’m working with a number of organizations that have reached out to me. “We’re doing this. Can you use it in your schools?” We have to begin a filtering process at some point. At the moment I’m saying yes to them all.
GamesBeat: I’m not sure I can find a Brexit angle here, but maybe you can think of one? [laughter]
Livingstone: I campaigned very loudly for Remain. The games industry, according to our research, 85 percent of its members wanted to remain. Clearly it’s very disappointing news for Britain. I find it personally embarrassing. They weren’t voting on the issues. It was an anti-government vote. But maybe sense will prevail and we can still come out of this part of the single market. The video game industry needs unrestricted access to EU talent through the free movement of people. We rely on EU programmers and artists. We also need unrestricted access to a market of 560 million people. Why would we want to give that up?
For me it’s a very strange thing. The EU’s not perfect, of course, but I feel part of a family, a large family. Not all of the people in that family are great, but would you want to risk breaking up the family for the sake of one or two people you don’t like in it? Absolutely not.
Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.