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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 August 2005, 08:04 GMT 09:04 UK
Pupils learn through Myst game
By Jo Twist
BBC News technology reporter

Image of teacher Tim Rylands
Tim sees benefits in some mainstream games
The bald man picks up his bamboo walking stick and starts to play it.

Strains of some enchanting melody sweep through the cavernous hall as a gentle breeze bothers the musty curtains.

He stops abruptly and turns with a twinkle in his eye which seems stolen from an ancient, untapped mine.

I have entered an alternate world and it is a far cry from the inner city.

I have just met Tim Rylands, a teacher who uses the best-selling PC game series ever, Myst, in the classroom.

Tim won this year's Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) award for the best use of technology in the class.

PC games in schools are not such a strange sight in the 21st Century. So-called edutainment titles teaching children literacy and numeracy skills in an enjoyable way have had some success.

They tap into what media-savvy children and young people like doing to have fun.

But Tim, a teacher at Chew Magna Primary School, Bristol, UK, regularly travels with his pupils into entirely different digital worlds with his children - worlds that are mystical, musical, and eerily beautiful lands.

He does it all from the classroom via a laptop, an interactive whiteboard, and projector, bringing concepts such as "metaphor" and "simile" alive.

Screenshot of Myst: End of Ages
Children are swamped by high quality visual images all the time. My job is to give them the visual literacy skills to explain to them what it is they are watching
Tim Rylands
Children and teacher travel through the game together, in a shared experience.

Tim pauses and asks the children what decisions they should make in the game and they learn to solve problems together.

It is part of the creative process; he asks them to write about, describe, and explore through words, what they encounter and what they might mean.

The difference between using a mainstream popular computer game and an edutainment title is that there is no "learning goal" at the end. Tim sets his own.

To him, the rich, multimedia, immersive games, such as Myst, have huge potential for getting creative.

"They are landscapes that have been written into existence," he told the BBC News website.

"Myst games are peaceful and mind expanding rather than mind-numbing."

They encourage children to problem solve, and think creatively and, according to him, the games have a "solid social structure".

Visual language

"Children are swamped by high quality visual images all the time. My job is to give them the visual literacy skills to explain to them what it is they are watching."

Equipping them with a visual language means they gain a healthy respect, says Tim, for the skills and effort put into creating such landscapes.

Screenshot of Myst: Exile
Some computer games take children and adults into other worlds
They are also the types of critical skills that 21st Century grown-ups increasingly have to rely on. The experience spawns a group of articulate children who have become critical of other games which fail to live up to their expectations.

He describes his nine to 11-year-olds as "magpies" - they flock to whatever is visually sparkling and "nick the best bits". Some have played the game before, but most have not.

The learning process is like "verbal jazz", says Tim.

The mix of 3D, richly textured and fantastical worlds beyond the physical, where players find the story themselves, using lateral thinking to solve puzzles in order to move on through the game, is magical.

"It is powerful because you can choose the pace at which you move and you can choose the path through. They are not linear games," explains Tim.

Parent play

Tim's first exposure to the peaceful worlds of Myst came after he was diagnosed with a central nervous system condition. Hence the walking stick he uses which doubles as a flute.

He used to be extremely active and missed walking until a friend recommended having a stroll through the virtual landscapes of Myst.

The children now create their own videos, against backdrops of the games' landscapes, complete with soundtracks they compose on real instruments as well as computer-generated sounds.

Screenshot of Myst: Exile
A far cry from the inner city
"I have used this in the class for six years and have not had a single negative comment. Parents even want to play them and share them with their children," he said.

The real impact is clear in the faces of the children who moan when the lunch bell goes. It is also clear in the tangible "value added" results on literacy achievements.

The national average attainment of Level Four literacy levels for that age group is 75%. At Chew Magna, the number attaining Level Four have shot up from 76.5% in 2000 to 93% in 2004.

What is more convincing is the level of achievement for boys. The national average for Level Four achievement has stayed at 70% between 2000 and 2004. At Tim's school, the figure has gone from 66.7% to a full marks score of 100%.

Tim is confident that the improvements have been largely down to the creativity that Myst has inspired in the children.

The final Myst game in the series, Myst V: End of Ages, is released in September.

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