February 28 2008

C4 Education strategy bears fruit

Posted by matt in Education, Publishing

Bow Street Runner represents Channel 4 Education’s first real foray into the world of delivering informal education via alternate-reality games. This one takes the users - it is aimed at the C4 Education heartland of 14-19yr olds - into an immersive environment, using impressive 3-d backgrounds blended with live-action video shot on green screen. It is a broadband experience.

Not only is it a gripping and an exciting game, but its high production values are clear. But you would expect quality video to be shot by a broadcaster of C4’s stature. Still, it is well executed by the C4 production team and Littleloud, the company that made it. You play the part of a Bow Street Runner, a pre-cursor to the modern police force aimed at helping magistrates bring criminals to justice. Played out over five ‘episodes’, you will encounter a range of crimes and will be expected to collect evidence, interview actors, solves puzzles and eventually put your case to the magistrates. Be warned - you aren’t guaranteed a happy ending if your skills aren’t up to the task.

The health warning on the launch page - presumably demanded by the lawyers to avoid the insurmountable online watershed hurdle - will do a nice line in attracting users to click on the launch icon, not a million miles from those teenagers channel flicking in anticipation of the now-infamous C4 red triangle. And much like those teenagers, perhaps they will be drawn into a piece of genuinely engaging work, like those arthouse films in the 80s.

“This game is designed to provide an historically accurate – and therefore grim, violent and salacious – depiction of life”.

My own tiny gripes are that the ’subtitles off’ icon reminds me of the Windows minimise window icon, and that whilst you can mute the sound, you cannot skip the intro. Accessibility-wise you can tab around the navigation but not the in-game elements (presumably a deliberate choice as it’s hide and seek with those). You cannot pause, go back or save. The in-scene scrolling is pretty smooth, and this is a Beta release - the first episode should be ‘hard launched’ on March 6th 2008.

The critics who argue that the game is inaccessible to a schools network audience, or is not mapped to a curriculum, miss the point. The remit of C4 is to offer unmediated, inspiring and possibly controversial content to 14-19yr olds first, and the most progressive of teachers second. Formal education just isn’t their bag - and most likely turns this audience off.

The game itself is not especially innovative - see the BBC’s CDX for example and the idea of delivering informal learning in this way is not new - the BBC also has a strong track record in this field. But, as ever C4 are pushing the boundaries. The content has an edgier feel and is more gritty than you might find over at auntie.

Flash blended video is a fantastic medium for online games & marketing, especially in the realm of delivering informal education. See BBC WebWise or Vodafone Journey for excellent examples of blended interactive flash video.

Where C4 really are innovating is by the wholesale spending of their education budget on interactive content rather than telly. Whilst other broadcasters (OK - the BBC) have large interactive budgets, C4 are the first to take such a big leap, and finally show some real confidence in the medium as a meaningful force for change in their market.

C4 have a defined audience (14-19 years of age) and so they are placing their content where this audience, diverse as it is, can be found. Specifically, this is not watching TV in the mornings during term time (or at least it shouldn’t be). C4 are launching wholeheartedly into the web. Crucially, in another leap of faith, they are also branching out their content onto other platforms such as bebo; MySpace and Facebook. Surely other content providers will follow.

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