Dundee to digital games in learning

In but a few hours, Scotland will vote on whether to become a fully independent nation. Scotland has a thriving video game industry, with much of the creativity focused on the city of Dundee. Here, we examine some of the historical connections between Dundee and the current situation of game-based learning.

Even if you are in the minority who do not play video games, it is difficult to ignore their presence in contemporary culture. Just last week the online game Destiny, with a development and advertising budget of half a billion US dollars, sold ten million copies on its launch day. Minecraft, a simulator used in some schools, approaches 60 million sales – and has just been bought out for 1.5 billion pounds – while games such as DuoLingo, Civilization and Rollercoaster Tycoon are used in learning, both casually and more formally in classrooms.

We live in a time where non-gaming educators and academics find themselves trying to separate the hype from the relevance of concepts such as gamification, virtual worlds and avatars. Why do people play games, and what exactly is this ‘play’ thing? How do you obtain a digital game for your students which is useful? How do you know if the game was, actually, useful or not after use? And where is the high quality research and further information that can help inform your practice?

But video games in education? Seriously? Yes. Though not ubiquitous, and often not suitable – you are unlikely to read of a primary school using Call of Duty or Candy Crush Saga as many people with some influence would object – video games have a long history in education, from the settler simulator of The Oregon Trail fourty years ago to the algebraic progression of Twelve A Dozen today.

How did we arrive at this point, for a media which has only existed for four decades? One historical root of this progression lies in a Scottish city more associated with cake and jute….

Entertainment such as games has been an integral part of human development for centuries. Dundee is well-known for several industries, one being a recent form of entertainment, namely video games. There are few other cities of 150,000 residents which are the home of so many games companies – currently around 40, many with vacancies – and video game software releases. This is no accident or coincidence as the city has a long history of technology and publishing industries and academia, leading to a local population with skills relevant to video game creation.

For example, D. C. Thomson & Co. were founded in Dundee over a century ago, producing newspapers, magazines and comics such as the Dandy and The Beano with their associated graphic and media designers. Several electronics companies moved to Dundee, or were formed in the city, producing ATM machines, some of the first commercially available computers, and electronic components.

The most famous of these digital businesses was Timex, the owners of a large factory in the Dryburgh district. In the early 80s the factory produced mass market home computers such as the ZX80 and ZX81 for Clive Sinclair’s Research Company, while its most famous product was the ZX “Speccy” Spectrum, selling over 5 million units. These computers encouraged solo home programming, with many titles being sold directly to the public by their programmers. In the history of video games, the Spectrum alone became the platform for 24,000 software titles and the subject of 80 magazines; it is no surprise that more than a few of these games were made by people who worked in Dundee and knew the machines well.

Repeated investment in the city also helped develop an environment for creative media industries. In 1984, as older heavy industries declined, Dundee was declared an Enterprise Zone, while in 2009 the UK government invested £2.5m in a video game centre at Abertay University. This university itself was the first university in the world to offer a course explicitly in video game engineering, in 1996. Now, the School of Arts, Media and Computer Games offers several undergraduate and postgraduate courses in game development and production. Not to be outdone, the University of Dundee also offers courses for students interested in entering the games industry.

Of the many academic alumni of Dundee who moved into video game development, David Jones founded DMA Design (which eventually became Rockstar North) in 1988. The first major “hit” of DMA Design was Lemmings; a few years later, the first of the Grand Theft Auto franchise was released, with the company selling over a quarter of a billion games to date. Dynamo Games, formed by Dundee University alumni, develops the mobile and app versions of the popular Championship (football) Manager franchise. 4J studios have ported (taking an existing game and making it work on a new platform) several titles, including Banjo Kazooie and the aforementioned Minecraft. And there are thousands of other digital and video games, of greatly varying degrees of success, which have been developed by companies in Dundee.

The city and its universities also host regular game events, such as the annual Dare ProtoPlay festival. With the visibility of the games industry extending to even statues in a city park, and the shopping centre being modeled in Minecraft, Dundee is a city that continues to support this particular creative industry which has become, arguably, the preeminent producer of cultural entertainment today.

Sable’s story

Within Animal Crossing are a myriad of sometimes interconnecting story arcs. Some become quickly apparent; some over time; and some only by accident and with much persistence.

Sable’s story is one. This analysis, including the dialogue from Animal Crossing: New Leaf, was posted by another player on a now-gone social media page several months ago.

Oh man, all these people are playing Animal Crossing New Leaf and it’s their first Animal Crossing game ever and they’re totally missing out on some poignant story elements.

In each game you can talk to Sable every day and she’ll gradually open up to you and tell you more about her life.

When the Able Sisters were young their parents passed away. Mable was too young to understand the situation, and Labelle was older and frustrated and ran away to the big city leaving Sable to act as the sole parent to Mable. These events left Mable introverted and withdrawn. She works so hard because she had to take on the responsibility of raising Mable after their parents died and her big sister abandoned her.

In Animal Crossing City Folk, you can enter Gracie’s shop to buy high-end clothing and one of her employees is Labelle, the lost Able sister. Through a series of conversations with various characters you can trick Labelle into dropping her phoney proper accent and speaking in a more relaxed “country” accent. She opens up and talks about her past and her family. In New Leaf, Labelle has moved home. In the back of her shop you can see a newspaper clipping and a ribbon that used to be part of her old uniform.

If you consider that newspaper clipping compared to the backstory from the previous games it paints a sad picture. Labelle moved to the city to get away from her family but she fell on hard times and her family took her back. People who haven’t played the previous games don’t realize what a big deal it is to see those three sisters finally reunited in the same store!

In Wild World, Sable would get sad sometimes around January. If you talk to her consistently she’ll tell you this story about Tom Nook:

+ + + + +

“Well, the first letter I got from him arrived at just around this time of year… The other day, before bed, I pulled that letter out… and just looked at it. Tee hee! It was adorable! Sure, the handwriting was a little messy, but… You could hear his determination in every word of that letter… Sweet, young Tom Nook… His call to arms, his ethos, was “Dreams before money!” He was so pure that people wondered if he’d survive this crazy old world. I did too. Every night before falling asleep, I would wish him… ‘Please keep Tom Nook’s pure spirit protected,” I’d whisper in the darkness. “Keep him safe from the apathy that breeds in the alleys of the big city…’

I don’t know why I’ve told you so much about Tom Nook and I… All those memories of our shared youth must bore you. Please forgive me.

[Tell Me More!]

…Ohh, OK, if you insist!

“The Tom Nook that left for the big city… He sent me letters quite frequently, actually. One day, I received a wooden box, not a letter. When I opened it, I was quite astonished!

[A ring?!]

Oh goodness, no! Are you kidding?! [NAME], I think you’ve been watching too many made-for-TV movies! …Ohh, I’m so sorry. Heh, I didn’t mean to snap. That just took me off guard.

No, inside the box, there was a pair of fancy, burnt-orange colored… scissors. Incredibly strong and sharp scissors! The finest scissors I’d ever laid eyes on. The enclosed letter said, “Happy birthday, Sable!” So…sweet… At the time, I was so busy that I’d even forgotten it was my birthday. To think Tom Nook had remembered it… I’m sure life was hard for Tom Nook in the city during that time… I know his job paid poorly, so for him to buy those scissors for me… When I think about it, it makes me so happy that I cry!

Oh really, [NAME]… You want to hear my memories again? I’m warning you, not all my memories are fond ones you know…


Well, we shared a lot of good times, Tom Nook and I. Before there was an observatory in dear old [TOWN NAME]… We used to climb up the roof when we wanted to look at the stars… Ohh, yes! We even made constellations together, I remember! I made one called the “Star Shirt.” Tom Nook’s looked like one of those old-time markets. He called it… “The Farmer’s Market Bargain Bin Constellation.” Ohh that takes me back…

[Nice story]

Yes, it is… Shortly after that, Tom Nook moved to the big city… Yes, he left to chase his dreams… When he returned to [TOWN NAME], he came back a totally different soul… I still believe that… if he had just clung to those sweet memories like I do… he would have shaken off the heartsickness of those city years… Memories can be sad, but they can also save you…”

+ + + + +

There seems to be a general theme in the Able Sisters storyline of the city representing running away. The implication is that the fast lifestyle of the city can make you sick with ennui and that taking it easy in a small town is the cure. The Animal Crossing series, as a whole, is about not running.

The literal act of “running” is the only thing that the game ‘punishes’ you for doing – you’ll destroy flowers, scare away fish and bugs, and gradually tear away the grass. But the game still gives you the option to run, because it’s about choosing to slow down and enjoy the journey. It’s not about beginnings or endings, it’s about the calmness between those events. It’s sort of like the video game version of the Japanese concept of Ma. Animal Crossing is a really beautiful thing and I’m so happy it exists.

Dreamcast: the brightest star

Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. – Don Draper, (The Wheel) Mad Men, 2007.

It’s nearly 15 years since Sega launched the Dreamcast, first in Japan and then, some months later, in other part of the world. I bought the Dreamcast on launch day in the UK, in the fall of 1999, having been alerted by articles on the still-emerging web about the unusual array of games coming out for this console. As the Mega Drive and the Saturn passed me by, the Dreamcast was my first, and (for everyone) last, Sega video game console.

Turning it on produced that logo spiraling outwards and that short piece of music that still throws my head into an instant memory loop. Owners of the Dreamcast will know what I mean. Owners of other beloved items, such as certain books, or movies, or CDs, will also know that feeling.

The controller was odd (and copied to an extent by the Xbox 360 controller); so symbolic of the console. You could take out the Visual Memory Unit, a self-contained, watch-battery operated piece with a Tamagotchi-like LCD display, play mini games on it, or put it into another controller and use the saved positions housed within it. Even connect two VMUs to each other. Neat. Portably neat.

And the graphics, music and sound. For the late 1990s. Here’s the opening sequence of one of the launch titles, Soul Calibur. Nostalgia-trip-overdrive-for-former-Dreamcast-owners alert:

Like the Nintendo 3DS, the Dreamcast hinted at potential that was largely unfulfilled. There was a modem included. In a video games console. In the 90s (I keep saying that, but it was a different and primitive time then, of geocities and web rings and rubbish Internet connections and unsmart, crude phones, expensive laptops, and Psion organizers where today you’d have an iPad or some other tablet instead). Normal now, but then – not so normal. Web browsing was basic but, hey, it worked. Online gaming was possible. And implemented, in games such as Phantasy Star Online.

Then there was the fishing rod controller of Sega Bass Fishing, which could be used as a sword or light saber in other games, Space Channel Five and the maracas of Samba de Amigo (lineage: Nintendo Wii and a multitude of dancing and rhythm games). And, well, the speech recognition aspects of Seaman, a game almost impossible to explain (“So, there’s this half-fish half-man thing with the voice of Leonard Nimoy, and you can have conversations with it”) without playing (a NSFW video).

But more nostalgia trips (including Metropolis Street Racer, Jet Grind Radio, Ecco the Dolphin, Skies of Arcadia, Rayman, Rez, Crazy Taxi, Sonic Adventure, ChuChu Rocket) and the game that twigged me to the huge potential of digital games outside of ‘merely’ entertainment: Shenmue, another time.

The Dreamcast didn’t officially last long, even by video gaming standards. By Easter 2001, less than 18 months after the UK and European launch, Sega stopped making the console. Strange marketing, making the console deliberately ‘niche’ (re: low sales), and the juggernaut of the Sony Playstation 2 with bland but big-selling franchises, drained Sega of money. Though the community took over, in various ways, and kept the Dreamcast going as a viable platform for several more years.

It’s still, past and present, the console with the most innovative line up of games in video gaming history. Other sites agree. Many previous owners agree too. Now, well over a decade after its brief official life, memories of the Dreamcast – what it represented in video games, with a line-up simply too cool to be mainstream – lives on.

Just don’t tell the hipsters.

And hope that, one day, we’ll get to experience Shenmue 3.

A digital games in learning infokit

Today marked the lunch-launch (or launch-lunch?) of the Jisc Digital Media infokit on Digital Games in Learning. You can find From Flappy Bird to furthering learning on their website.

Why? Because lunch.

Infokit and cheesecake

Why the infokit? Because it’s needed. Digital (and analogue) games in learning have been around for decades, now. Like skateboarding and the Internet, they are not a new concept, and whether people like them or not, they aren’t going to go away.

Which presents two related problems:

  1. How do people use games to “help” with teaching and learning.
  2. And, based on increasing experience, how do people avoid using games that don’t help with teaching and learning.

The second problem is as interesting as the first, and is becoming more pressing as a new wave of Gamification consultants and companies oil their way around UK academia, looking for opportunities to tarmac a layer of league tables and points over learning systems, in exchange for large bags of cash.

Mobile tech

With the demands of learners (increasingly indebited customers) to, well, learn quicker, faster, better, the effectiveness of salespeople and vendors, the buzz around Games in Learning often obscuring the more nuanced research, the popularity of gaming, and the pressures on teachers and facilitators of all ages of students, it’s easy to be seduced by the allure of digital games. Unfortunately, though there isn’t (yet) a large hole in the ground filled with copies of a disastrous edutainment game, there is a long history of academics throwing a lot of money at digital games and not getting back what they wanted, needed, or thought they were getting in return.


But … there are also been success stories. Digital games and environments which have been, or are, used either accidentally or deliberately as pretty darned good educational things. Over delicious sourdough pizza, the Jisc Futurist and I conversed on the uses of Minecraft in particular, and how it compared to Second Life from an ease-of-use-in-academia perspective.

And we discussed – and persistently came back to – DuoLingo, the free online language learning system which is addictive compelling to use without external motivations. Why does it work? How does it work? What are the makers of it getting out of it (that one’s interesting)? How can DuoLingo be used within formal teaching, or even UK FE or HE? How can elements of DuoLingo – either concepts, systems or the more “good feels” stuff – be put into other game-based learning systems?

Dessert described

Anyway; have a look at the infokit. There will be a lot of additions over time; the structure is deliberately designed to make the content easy to update. The infokit is tilted more towards academics who have little or no experience of games – those perhaps more easily seduced by their apparent and actual uses – and so experts may not glean so much of use from the texts.

The dessert, by the way, was an orange cheesecake (chosen because of the logo color of the infokit funders). It was nom. Thanks to Martin for an enjoyable lunch, and to Karla, National services director of Jisc Digital Media, for her considerable help and professionalism throughout the development of this infokit. btw you might want to check out the other guides they have funded and host; there’s quite a few.


Coming soon…

Let’s see, now.


Floppy Word? No. No, that won’t do.



Coming shortly (as in, within the next few weeks), an “InfoKit” for those in academia interested in using digital games in learning, teaching and education. Watch this space, or follow TwelveBadges, for more.