Laptops, iPads, smart phones, TVs – you can’t get away from them these days! With the increasing amount of screen-time in their lives, children are spending less and less time outdoors, and the resulting disconnect from nature is not only well documented but intensely worrying.

As a conservation charity, our personal experiences of nature – the serenity of a buzzing, blossoming hay meadow in mid-summer; the rough bark of a tree, climbed to the highest branch; the graceful soar of a skydancing hen harrier in mid-flight – are at the heart of what we do. However without this personal connection to nature, some people find it difficult to understand why they should care about it. That’s why a growing number of conservation charities (RSPB included), educators, and concerned parents alike are joining forces to reignite that passion for nature and get children outdoors though new initiatives such as the excellent Project Wild Thing, and the Natural Childhood Partnership.

Of course, while we continue to champion education outside the classroom, there’s no escaping the fact that computers and associated technology in all its various shapes and forms are here to stay. I distinctly remember the shock I felt the first time I saw a primary school teacher reveal an entire crate of tablet computers (padded for classroom use) in order to extract a single device to take photos of our workshop activities. Now however, it just seems normal.

If we accept that children are going to be using these computers regardless, then why not make sure that if they’re not experiencing nature first-hand, they’re at least learning about it online? RSPB have a number of nature-related games on our website already and believe it or not, this idea of using computer games in nature conservation is already a field of growing research – see here for one such study.

  

Screen-shots from some of the Skydancer Game Jam entries, January 2013.

So why not have a computer game about hen harriers? With this in mind, in January 2013 we ran a competition with Northumbria University, challenging their undergraduate computing students to create a short hen harrier-themed computer game, which could be used to help inspire children about these amazing birds of prey.

The competition took the form of a Game Jam, in which students had just 75 hours to create a working demo game matching the brief that we set them. Five teams comprising a total of 22 students took part, and judging was tough to say the least and the screenshots above show just how individual each of the games were. Prizes were awarded for aesthetic design (the look and feel of the game), game design (how it played), and overall technical achievement.

Students from all of the winning teams with their certificates from Northumbria University, February 2013.

Since then, we’ve been working with a selection of students from the winning teams, namely Dean Astley, John Snowdon, Shaun Kavanagh, Matthew Gilmore, and Siddhartha Mandaiker, to draw the best elements of each of these games together to create a fully functional game that can be used as part of our wider Skydancer education work. Created voluntarily alongside their studies, the game is all their own original work and a brilliant achievement - not to mention fun to play!  

Making the game - demonstrating one of the original concept games, February 2013.

John had this to say about it, “Making the skydancers game was not only massive fun, but also very educational, as I hadn’t heard about this type of birds beforehand. When designing the game we wanted the player to experience the life of a hen harrier in a fun, and interactive environment, highlighting some of the challenges the birds faces. By living the life of a hen harrier, our aim was to provoke an emotional response from the player, in the hope to raise awareness on this beautiful bird of prey.”

The game is now live on our website and will be included on CD as part of the Skydancer teaching resource packs currently in development.

So why not give it a go and let us know what you think! My high score is 892...

Play: http://www.rspb.org.uk/youth/play/skydancergame.aspx

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