In 1992 I was working for an engineering company. It was my scheduled summer work for the company that were sponsoring me through university. One day a colleague called me over and showed me this amazing thing on his computer.

It was Wolfenstein. It was 3D. And he’d got it for free. And he used company time to play it. All of those things were completely new ideas to me.

OK. It’s not funny to waste company time playing games, but 3D… and free… in 1992. Just wow!

That feeling of being to romp around Castle Wolfenstein with your minigun looking for Adolf Hitler, who, when you met him, had 2 miniguns was just awesome. And this idea of ‘shareware’ I had never come across before – basically you pay what you want. Of course, as a poor student, I payed nothing.

#28daysofwriting Day 24

Make my own adventure

A page from my attempt at a gamebook

Another chapter* in my gaming obsession was ‘Choose your adventure books’. These swiftly led on to the idea that I could create my own versions of them.

The limitation of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons that I so enthusiastically played, was that you needed a whole lot of other people to play with to make the game work. Organising such people was often hard, so here’s where ‘choose your own adventure books‘ came in – a story with choices, so you could interact, have an adventure, without any other people. Marvellous.

I soon moved on to the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone ones – Warlock of Firetop Mountain and the like – but my very favourites were the Lone Wolf Gamebooks. I loved these because the story continued from book to book and, even more importantly, there was an element of character generation. You could choose certain traits and abilities and these would grow in power as you went through the books. This character development was something I loved in Dungeons and Dragons and the same idea of gaining experience, or leveling up, are often used today in the most successful computer games.

The corollary of this obsession with gamebooks was that I would attempt to make my own version. I found an old exercise book in the attic recently with just such an attempt recently.

A character sheet from my abortive game

I must have borrowed the book from school. In it, I have attempted to define two character classes – fighter and monk – including creating a load of special abilities and spells. It looks like I worked very hard on that part. But nowhere can I find any actual story. It’s like I ran out of steam before getting on to the main event. Maybe homework got the better of me. Or maybe I realised that other people were doing a better job

#28daysofwriting Day 20

*I use this phrase with heavy irony, given the lack of chapters I actually wrote.

07 Commander!

Computer gaming really started for me with Elite. This game held me spellbound for the entire Christmas holiday in which I had received it as my main gift.

Now I know that my mum had a bit of a miserable time that holiday. Myself and my Dad, who played the game when I wasn’t playing it, spent every waking hour flying our spaceships and so did not spend much time as family. This is the inherent problem with gaming.

I used to play the game with my friend – we took turns in the cockpit flying from one space system to another – while the other watched. Collaborative computer gaming did not really exist in 1986. We used to imagine that the rest of the house was just a hologram designed to make our spaceship more homely, although I’m not sure my parents, nor my sisters, ever knew that we were pretending they weren’t real.

One of my over-riding memories of this phase was the fact that my Dad beat me. Whilst I got through to Deadly – the second top rank, he made it all the way through to Elite.

Thirty years later, you may well know that Elite is back. Elite Dangerous is a lovely space game, in which you can spend hours doing the same things you did in 1986, but with better pictures. If you’ve played Elite Dangerous at all, you know that commanders greet each other with an 07 salute, hence the title of this post… Yes! I do play the new Elite. I’ve got myself a decent ship and a small amount of capital which I’m using to buy a better ship. My wife thinks it’s really boring – flying and docking she calls it. She can’t believe I like to spend my time playing it.

But as in 1986 it has happened again – my Dad has beaten me. He has a much better ship than me and hods of money and what’s more he is even Elite in one category. So at 75 years old, I still can’t beat him.

#28daysofwriting Day 19

The thirty by thirty foot room

My friend Dave introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons when I was twelve. We played it at school, during lunchtimes, and I loved it.

My parents consented to buy it for me for my birthday. It was a lovely red box with lovely shiny red books inside. I soon got my parents and my sister, Ali, to join my in a game. I was Dungeon Master, of course. My Dad made a wizard called Gandalf. That was predictable too.

I used the starter adventure – the one that was already in the book. What I didn’t realise was how many times I would be saying the words: “you enter a thirty by thirty foot room.” I guess I didn’t care – I was just so excited at showing my family this new game. My mum still remembers that vividly and I remember her rolling her eyes and saying “not another thirty by thirty foot room!

Ever after that, whenever I played Dungeons and Dragons she would ask me how the thirty by thirty foot rooms were.

I’m sure I learnt to describe things with a little more detail as I continued my ‘dungeon master career’.

#28daysofwriting Day 18

Picture from Brian Hall. To read about a real gamer, check his blog.



My Gaming Obsession

Look! A shiny blue archer lead figure…

A friend recently told me that his boys had got into painting Warhammer figures. Seeing the figures, the paint, he had picked one up and given it a go. What seemed like moments later, he finished his figure and realised that he had spent two hours at it.

It took me back to Saturdays spent in the kitchen annex at my parents house, where I would sit with my sisters painting lead figures. I still have many of those figures, although now they sit in my attic gathering dust.

And I still have many of the books that I used the figures for – Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, Bounty Hunter – and I still have loads of paperwork of games or characters that I’ve created. It sits in files or notebooks, again gathering dust. From paper-based gaming to computer and tablet, I’ve played a lot of different games. Some of them I have even used, with some success, in the classroom.

As it is half term, I thought I would spend my time moving away from the general theme of Education and begin reflecting on something that has been at the centre of much of my leisure time for the last thirty years: gaming.

#28daysofwriting Day 17

But we’re all cheating, remember.

So it’s great to see that more primary schools are meeting their targets. I love the way the BBC headline is phrased: “Fewer primary schools fail to meet their target.” Hooray: we have less failure. It shows what a glass-half-empty culture we’re in at the moment in education. We could so easily have said – Hooray: more success!

So I could go on about this over-negativity I suppose. Or I could make the ironic link between this and what Michael Gove said yesterday. Today the DoE tells us that: “Heads, teachers and pupils deserve credit for meeting the challenge head on”. Yesterday Michael Gove wrote to schools criticising an admittedly small minority of teachers for having a detrimental effect on their schools through working to rule.

However what I want to draw attention to is that today’s headlines come at a time when I believe we have an over-supportive assessment system in this country. Some people have pointed the finger at how the system has been geared to judge the school and not the pupil. Others have expressed their fears that our system is being ‘gamed’ – teachers and school leaders are ‘playing the game’ to make their schools look good, without actually doing the job of raising standards through good teaching. A helpful way of looking at this may be David Weston’s hastily but well-drawn graph of the continuum between teaching and cheating. Or you just might say that actually we’re all cheating.

You see, the BBC say: “The results are based on the national tests children in all state schools take in their final year of primary school.” But they don’t say that these tests are entirely self-invigilated. Unfortunately the phrase ‘national test’ distracts us from the fact that schools can sit their students with as many support staff as they want, in whatever group size they want, and nobody but the staff in the school watch them do it.

Yes there are one or two ‘invigilators’ that Local Authorities send out to schools on random monitoring visits, but they are so few and far between that school can pretty much guarantee that they won’t be there on the crucial day.

And who benefits from these tests being, shall we say, over-supportive? Schools do. When we read from the DfE:

“Schools with a long history of underperformance, and who are not stepping up to the mark, face being taken over by an Academy sponsor…” 

we begin to get get a hint of the intense pressure that schools are under. Headteachers and Governors are replaced in this process. Poor SATs results can trigger an Ofsted inspection bringing more pressure onto teachers. Surely if we just give one or two suggestions to those border-line children just to tip them over onto the right side of the grade boundary it won’t matter? Will it?

The problem with this approach is that it sucks the independence out of children. No matter what their ability these children expect the same level of support as they go into secondary school. Then to achieve their own progress measures, the secondary schools are under the same pressure as primary schools to ‘tweak’ their GCSE results just that little bit. And all along our students are losing their independence. We are creating a generation of exam zombies – education consumers who expect education to be done to them, not to be active participants.

Ever wondered why they need so many plagiarism checkers at universities these days? It’s not just the ease of access to online material – it is also the fact that our students expect to be supported. They do not expect to think for themselves. It is not a ‘thinking skills curriculum’ that fixes this. It is a rigorous, well-invigilated exam system that demands students think for themselves.

So unfortunately, even though I’d like to be glass-half-full about today’s announcement, celebrating with the many primary schools that, like mine, are now above the floor targets, all I can think of is the increasing amount of learners who will need support to hit their inflated targets throughout the rest of their education. It weakens us as an education system and it weakens us as a society, even though it might look good in the short term.