Channel 4 Education: Playing The Game
At least half of Channel 4 Education's budget goes on games, while digital fund 4iP and entertainment channel E4 also pitch in with gaming projects. Last September, Channel 4 set aside a multi-million pound pot for creating console and PC games which deal with the "broad" issues facing teenagers today, but "don't preach to their audience". Targeting predominantly 14 to 19-year-olds, Education works with UK indies, such as Zombie Cow, LittleLoud and Beatnik Games, on a range of innovative projects.
In 2008, the team had its first major success with LittleLoud's BAFTA-nominated history game Bow Street Runner. More recently, the division has released web-based game The Curfew, a political thriller set in a dystopian future written by comic book scribe Kieron Gillen, as well as glossy magazine body-image game Cover Girl and the SuperMe collection of games and videos designed to make young people feel "just a little bit happier".
Taylor and her boss, head of education Matt Locke, were drafted into Channel 4 with a remit to help the Education division better reach out to its target audience. As a self-confessed "massive gamer" (she's currently playing Bungie's Halo: Reach and "noodling around the web checking out the competition"), Taylor knew that gaming was the area to focus on.
"I came here from the BBC, where I spent most of my time preaching about games," she said. "I also write a blog about games and have played games all my life. So it was a no-brainer for me when they rang up and said, 'Will you make educational content online for teenagers?' I just knew it would be games, because I know the figures and you can't deny the figures."
Taylor said that the "hardest thing in the whole world" is striking the right balance in games development between education and entertainment. She said that creating games that are educational is not hard, as learning something new can be "awesome" if done well, especially with subjects such as military history. However, the labels of "education" and the rather odious term "edutainment" remain an instant turn off for young people.
"Those terms are monkeys on our back, we just have to accept that and move on," she said. "We try to produce the best, most fun and entertaining games that just happen to be useful. We don't really broadcast the fact that they are educational, although it does get out. Initially people thought we'd have all the games on a Channel 4 Education site, but we were like, 'Oh no, that's not good, nobody would want to come to that'. It's about putting the games where the young people are, on Miniclip, on Facebook, and so on, and it's working brilliantly. Where they do find out that it's educational, that's okay too."
BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm, has recently made a splash in the games world by launching a series of Doctor Who game episodes, while ITV last week unveiled Corrie Nation, a new social networking game based on the soap opera. Taylor said it is to be "expected" that broadcasters will licence their IP, while "nobody is going to be particularly surprised" if Channel 4 makes a Misfits game. However, she wants to "go beyond that".
One of Channel 4 Education's biggest recent releases has been Zombie Cow's rather marvellous twin-stick shooter Privates. The PC game, which Taylor describes as "very funny, very rude and very silly", also carries a message about unprotected sex and sexually transmitted infections. The colourful game (in both its graphics and language) involves the player leading a gang of condom-hatted marines as they eliminate dirty monsters from inside people's vaginas and bottoms. The game was originally intended for release on Xbox Live Indie Games as well as PC, but Microsoft ultimately felt that the title would not pass the peer review process due to its sexual nature.
"Originally we were going to submit it to Indie Games, but because Privates would score top marks for 'sexual content' the likelihood of it going through [the peer review] was like, nil," Taylor explained. "From my point of view, it was only ever a 'nice to have'. Zombie Cow made us a PC game, which could also run on Xbox if necessary, [but] it's a closed platform, so you have to ask permission. Oh well, the open internet is more than enough and a free downloadable PC game is working excellently for us in the meanwhile!"
The case of Privates demonstrates the challenges facing organisations like Channel 4 in attempting to distribute games in the console market. The broadcaster has found it easy to release games on the open internet, as well as social networks such as Facebook, but has so far been unsuccessful in its aim of getting onto Xbox Live, the PlayStation network or the Nintendo Wii. However, there is a growing trend for the TV screen and the internet to come together on new connected platforms, opening up a wide range of opportunities for digital services.
Among the emerging platforms is YouView, the online TV project previously known as Project Canvas that counts Channel 4 among its seven joint venture partners. Taylor said that YouView could be an interesting prospect for Channel 4 Education because "we won't have to ask permission" to get on there. Fani Sazaklidou, one of the lead designers on YouView, is also a former PlayStation executive, who Taylor hopes will be "having a lot of influence on how Canvas is being put together".
"We are aiming to get on Xbox, PlayStation, Wii, but they have gatekeepers so we have to negotiate the terms rather than just do it," she said. "With Canvas, we can just go do it, so inevitably we will. I now have high hopes for Canvas, whereas I previously thought that it might be a bit of a lowest common denominator. We've had interactive TV before, but to date in terms of traffic and impact, Red Button has not really made much noise. Maybe Canvas will change that, but it's early days as we have only recently heard what it will be about. We are waiting to find out what kind of technical capability Canvas will have and the remote control will significantly define what games we can build. The most important thing is that it will be an open platform so we can we can try things out and see what works, then do more of what works."
Channel 4 holds a fairly unique position in that it has a public service remit, but is funded by commercial activity. That creates an interesting dynamic between commercially-focused ideas and public service aims. The Education division is "pure public service", which means treading a fine line between appealing to its target market, while also appeasing its pay masters. Taylor said that the games she commissions are rated under a number of different categories beyond simply how many downloads they attract.
She explained: "We have all sorts of ways of measuring beyond just user numbers. It's things like, have we innovated? Have we encouraged new talent? Have we got good feedback from end users, from the education establishment; the teachers, politicians, people with an interest in education? What kind of feedback have we got from our peers; reviews, journalists and awards? There are all sorts of ways that we measure success, it's just not based against the educational curriculum."
Channel 4 has recently undergone a complete overhaul of its creative teams under the leadership of new chief executive David Abraham. The former boss of broadcaster UKTV has worked to create more harmony between the TV and online commissioning teams, while former BBC One controller Jay Hunt will become the broadcaster's first chief creative officer in January 2011. Taylor said that it's early days to judge how the changes will affect Education, but there are promising signs.
"Obviously, when you have a complete change at the top, it's going to change things all the way through, but it's yet to manifest. Like the Jay Hunt appointment, she's not coming until next January, so we won't know what she wants to do. But David Abraham has said that multimedia is going to be at the heart of everything we do," she said. "I'm not a television person, but we all know that the terrestrial channels are shrinking. I think the average age for a TV viewer is somewhere around 50, for Channel 4 it's 45, for the BBC it's between 51 and 57. Young people have different patterns of media consumption. For Education, it's not just about television, it's about the end user. If you look at teenagers and young people's leisure time, for the most part the TV is off and on, and so is the computer, and the games console and the mobile phone. So we try to go where they go."
Looking further forward, Taylor wants to see big changes in the video games industry, starting with an end to its "gender dystopia". Recent research indicated that the industry is now 98% male, which Taylor said makes games the only mainstream cultural medium that is "only produced by men". The gender bias also works to limit the variety of voices and ideas influencing the games that are being produced.
"I am really interested in areas that are completely unexplored, romance games, games about love, games about relationships. It's a massive genre in film and television, but totally unexplored in games," said Taylor. "Horror is barely explored, you get bits and pieces, but they all tend to be survival shooters. There is so much more that could be done there. Television is 80 or 90 years old, but it's also basically filmed theatre, so it's thousands of years old, whereas electronic games started just 30-odd years ago with just bat and ball (Atari's Pong). I categorically want to see more variety, fewer football and racing games for boys, and shopping games for girls. I want to see something way more interesting than that."