You recently published your 17th Fighting Fantasy gamebook [A series of books written as branching narratives, through which readers proceed by following directions to differently numbered paragraphs] nearly four decades after the first – what prompted you to revisit the series?
The Port of Peril was my 16th book, published in 2017 to mark the series’ 35th anniversary on the back of its relaunch by Scholastic. Puffin published Fighting Fantasy between 1982 and 1995, and Icon Books republished the series from 2002.
To date, some 20 million copies have been sold worldwide since the first, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was initially published. But there’s been a huge revival of interest in recent years, hence Scholastic wanting to publish the classic titles again and adding new titles. Assassins of Allansia is my 17th, but hopefully not my last since the 40th anniversary will be in 2022.
Are you aware of FF gamebooks having a greater presence in schools now than they did during that initial publishing run?
They were very popular in schools throughout the 1980s, thanks to the Puffin Book Club. Scholastic has its own book club and fairs programme, which will hopefully replicate that success all those years ago.
However, I spent time in the early years defending Fighting Fantasy against a backdrop of quite bizarre negative publicity. A religious group published a pamphlet warning that because they were ‘interacting with ghouls and demons’, children might become possessed by the devil. There was a worried mother who called her local radio station to say that having read one of the books, her child started levitating.
Of course, kids then rushed out to buy them, thinking that for £1.50 they could fly! Petitions were sent to Puffin Books by parents worried about their children using their imaginations too much. Madness.
And yet, over the same period of time, many teachers realised how beneficial the books were for reluctant readers and those with short attention spans, and the extent to which they could impart a love of reading in children. Teachers recognised that being an interactive, rather than passive experience, Fighting Fantasy books could promote critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making. Later research further established that the books also improved literacy levels.
Back in 2011 you were instrumental in the publication of Nesta’s Next Gen review, which contributed to a reshaping of the school computing curriculum in 2014 – what are your thoughts on the progress of computing education since then?
It was something that had to be done. Prior to the curriculum changing, the teaching of ICT had largely been a strange hybrid of office skills, where kids were shown how to use proprietary software – typically Word, PowerPoint and Excel – without being given a means of creating their own. It was effectively teaching children how to read, but not write.
There’s been good progress since 2014, but we’re still some way off from reaping the rewards of computing being core to the National Curriculum. Initially there weren’t enough teachers able to deliver the new curriculum and moreover, it is rather dry.
The DfE has a tendency to demand standardised metrics for evaluating children’s progress in a subject, typically via written tests based on recollection of ‘chalk and talk’ lessons.
The truth is, the traditional way of teaching ICT doesn’t work for the computing curriculum if creativity is the goal it should be. Creativity gives us an edge as a nation, be it in film, television, fashion, music, advertising, architecture or video games. Our creative industries are arguably the best in the world, so it’s vital that we nurture creativity in schools in both analogue and digital formats.
Children need to be engaged and encouraged to make their own discoveries, and games like Minecraft can help. Children are motivated to build wonderful 3D architectural worlds, share them with friends and gain an understanding of different disciplines in context.
A child will discover that by applying the heat of a furnace to silica sand they’ll create glass, which can then added to the building they’re crafting. Applied learning in context will likely stay in a child’s memory longer.
Learning-by-doing sometimes goes missing in classrooms, but it’s vital. I’m not suggesting children should be playing games all day in school, but children can move from playing games, to crafting content in games like Minecraft to building their own games using code.
Using games mechanics and delivering cross-curricular learning in simulation games, for example, will benefit children in multiple ways. The problem is that whilst people might believe in the cognitive benefits of playing chess, digital games are usually seen as trivial and lacking rigour.
To what extent will you be looking to address those issues through your involvement in the government’s academies programme? [The reception to 16 Livingstone Academy through school is due to open in Bournemouth in 2021]
First, I should make it quite clear that The Livingstone Academies will serve the national curriculum. The pupils we admit won’t be used as guinea pigs for our own benefit, but we’ll try to ensure that the pedagogy used in delivering the curriculum will engage the children.
Project-based learning will be very much a part of the education provided, and we’ll be looking to partner with industry, having representatives come in to give talks and set children projects that they can work on together.
Games-based learning will be used in part to deliver the curriculum, but when I say that, I don’t want anyone to think that the children will just be playing games all day. We’ll be applying game mechanics to some subjects for authenticity and context. Why can’t learning be fun?
You’re partnering with the Aspirations Academies Trust to open the school – how will the arrangement work, and what will the school’s philosophy be informed by?
I’d thought about opening a school ever since the publication of the Next Gen review. Of course, I was aware that I didn’t have the know-how or experience to run a school myself, so I needed to partner with a MAT that could.
I met the CEO of Aspirations Academies Trust, who had heard about my work around digital creativity. We shared the same vision and I was invited to join their board, and we came to an agreement whereby the Livingstone Academy would be an Aspiration Academies school. The school will advocate the education values I believe in, while Aspirations will operate the school itself.
The school will acknowledge the top three skills the World Economic Forum see as most important for living and working in the 21st century, namely critical thinking, creativity and problem solving. These meta skills will help school leavers to adapt to the furious rates of change in the digital world. With an entrepreneurial mindset and digital-making skills, school leavers might have ambitions to become job makers, not just jobseekers.