Wired: Getting kids switched on to electricity

25 September 2018

Interview with 

Diarmid Campbell and Richard Prager, University of Cambridge

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Screenshot from WIRED

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Engineers at Cambridge University have launched a professional computer game to enable players to learn how electricity works. It’s called WIRED, and software engineer Diarmid Campbell and engineer and technologist Richard Prager are the creators. Chris Smith asked them how the game works...

Diarmid - It’s a video game and you control a character who has to get to the top of a building, and she goes into various rooms. And when you go into a room you’ll find that there’ll be mechanical doors and platforms that can rise up, and fuel cells and switches, but initially, nothing moves because nothing’s wired up. So what the player has to do is first wire up all the components in the room and then they can run through it pulling the switches, jumping on the platforms and get out of the room.

Chris - And the story is basically get through each room to escape from this building?

Diarmid - Well okay, yes. So that’s the puzzles. There’s a story that runs through it because the player encounters these sort of old cine projector screens at various points where there’s this slightly eccentric professor who explains about some of the electrical concepts.

Chris - So not like real life then? And that imparts some of the learning as well so you’re doing some of the teaching through there?

Diarmid - That imparts some of the learning, absolutely. But you also then get to find out who that professor is; what his relationship is to the player character and the story evolves through that. I’d like to think of it as perhaps a cross between the old sort of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected perhaps mixed with an Open University style lecture.

Chris - Well Richard, you’re the very non-eccentric professor who’s part of the project. What was your motivation for actually doing this in the first place? Why did you turn the Department of Engineering effectively into a software house? Why have you gone down this route?

Richard - Well, we had this opportunity through an educational project funded by The Underwood Trust to do something a bit outlandish and to try and go in an educational direction that hadn’t been done before, even if it was rather high risk. And we thought wouldn’t it be amazing if we could create a normal video game, which was attractive as a video game, but had inside it the idea of the fun of engineering problem solving in a genuine natural way so that we would lure teenagers into solving engineering problems without them realising.

Chris - So it’s science by surversion if you like?

Richard - Yeah, exactly.

Chris - But it is actually good as a game in its own right isn’t it, Diarmid? Is that your motivation because I’ve played it and it’s pretty addictive.

Diarmid - Yes. A lot of educational games tend to be delivered through the classroom so they only ever end up having to be more fun than the lesson they’re replacing. And the whole idea with WIRED was saying let’s show that engineering is genuinely fun so let’s deliver it through gaming websites instead of the classroom so that people can choose to play it, so it needs to be at least as fun as other games that people choose to play. All the way through from the beginning it’s been designed with fun as being its primary driving force.

Chris - Well, I asked a young person to have a go of it? Would you like to hear? I’ve recorded having a go…

Diarmid - Yeah, I would.

Amelia - Hello. My name’s Amelia and I’m 12, and I’ve just been playing this really fun game called WIRED. You have to wire up circuits which make doors and platforms move so you can get around a school. I learned what a short circuit is. That you have to wire up machines correctly, you have to have a power supply to the machine and also you can’t have too many machines connected to a power supply, and the more machines you have connected to a power supply the machines will go slower.

This is a good game because I’m learning something and it’s definitely fun to do when you’re bored in the holidays.

Chris - Quite an endorsement that. Why did you go down the electricity route though, Richard? Why choose that subject?

Richard - I think it came from interviewing students for admission over many many years where I was surprised by how many people didn’t really understand the concepts behind voltage and current. Perhaps because you have to get both of them at the same time. You have to get voltage in order to get current. You have to get current in order to get voltage. And I thought this is maybe something that if we could get people to feel it, to experience it, to actually interact with it rather than just see it as a load of equations on paper it might help.

Chris - Diarmid, how have people received this? Obviously my n of 1 study there seemed to receive an enthusiastic appraisal, but what about the wider community? What sort of feedback are you getting? And also, one criticism leveled at projects like this is it’s one thing to do some public outreach and engagement, but it’s another to actually change people’s mindsets. Have you got sort of evidence that this is doing what Richard’s saying it aspires to do, which is to educate people more about the science of electricity?

Diarmid - The game has only been out for a few weeks, so all we’ve got so far is I guess feedback on the gaming websites where it’s been up and we’ve had lots of really positive messages up there. People just saying it’s very fun and I’ve learnt a lot. And I guess what’s gratifying is that because it’s up on a gaming website people are comparing it to other games and saying it’s a good game, it’s fun. But it’s not divorced from the education, they’re saying it’s fun that I learnt stuff as well. So the informal feedback has been very positive but I think it’s too early to say yet. We haven’t done formal studies about its educational effectiveness.

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