By Daniel McKeown
It’s two years since Channel 4 Education made the shift from daytime TV to developing online content in partnership with small software houses and independent studios, and the move appears to have reaped huge dividends
When plans for 2010’s online releases were unveiled recently, Channel 4 Education revealed how successful the transition from mid-morning broadcasting to online content has been: the attention-grabbing interactive element of online resources, the permanence of a URL compared to the transience of a one-off TV slot and the improvement in budget efficiency are contributing to a very positive mood. “It’s been massively successful,” says Alice Taylor, commissioning editor for education.
The problem for the station was that educational programmes going out mid-morning weren’t getting a large audience for the expenditure: a programme costing £72,000 to broadcast generally reached 72,000 people. In other words, it cost a pound per user.
“The money used for that broadcast can buy us a permanent place on the internet,” says Taylor. “1066 [an online game] cost £160,000 to make and had 320,000 UK users in a year, so in three years we will probably have reached most UK teens.”
It’s difficult to judge 1066’s popularity on a global scale as – remarkably for an educational game – it was pirated. Perhaps more remarkable is head of Channel 4 Education Janey Walker’s response: ‘Fantastic’.
Software piracy is seldom a laughing matter for developers, yet Walker’s reaction is more akin to fist-pumping than hand-wringing. While the emergence of pirated copies of 1066 makes it difficult to estimate accurately the number of unique gameplays, there is a silver lining in the fact that pirated copies are bringing the game – educational content and all – to a wider audience. At the very least, Walker seems prepared to accept the copyright infringement as a backhanded compliment.
The 2010 online releases promise to be equally interesting with a sequel to last year’s successful Battlefront programme accompanied by an online platform allowing young people to begin their own campaigns on relevant issues.
The marriage of broadcast and online content is also evident in other projects: this month sees the broadcast of Channel 4’s Bloody Foreigners series, showing the influence of non-UK nationals at key points in British history. This will be complemented by two Channel 4 Education ‘cultural history’ games which are already available online: Trafalgar Origins and Battle of Britain: 303 Squadron.
Trafalgar Origins, created by Preloaded, highlights the importance of foreign personnel in the navy and their vital contribution to securing victory for the British. “Most people assume Nelson’s fleet was all white chaps with moustaches, whereas it was actually 22 nations – and one woman – on the fleet,” says Alice Taylor.
Fish in a Bottle’s 303 Squadron tells a similar story of the Battle of Britain, in which a squadron of 34 Polish fighter pilots inflicted carnage on the Luftwaffe, helping to change the course of history. “They didn’t fly in a nice formation – they liked playing chicken with the Germans and took down twice the number,” explains Alice Taylor. “There’s a lot of xenophobic sentiment around at the moment – we’re doing what we can to mitigate that.”
Other thorny issues are also there to be tackled, as demonstrated by forthcoming release Privates: the player takes control of a crack team of miniature condom-helmeted soldiers who delve into people’s rude areas to fight STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and other problems. “When I said I want to do sex through games, a lot of people ran away,” laughs Taylor.
The game, which will be available to download to PC and Xbox360, is intended to combat rising STI and teen pregnancy problems. Britain has the highest level of teenage pregnancy in the EU in contrast to Scandinavian countries, which begin sex education at a much earlier age.
Other scheduled releases include The Curfew, a game set in a security-conscious future dystopia, and Super Me and Cover Girl, both of which aim to bolster self-image.
Channel 4 moving into graphic novels too with Alien Ink
Channel 4 is also tapping into the rising popularity of graphic novels. Teens'n'tats figure strongly in Alien Ink, its new online graphic novel for teenagers. It's written and illustrated by Pulp Theatre, well known for its cult hit Bridie's Law. As you'd expect, it reflects teen pressures "including relationship issues, sexual health and drug use".
The action is set around Alien Ink a tattoo shop in Camden, London, around Trinity and Ryder and the friends who dip in and you of this hub for local youth. But maybe Trinity and Ryder are not what they seem? They did, after all, arrive in Camden at the same time as UFO sightings on nearby Primrose Hill...
Expect more in due course because Alien Ink is just the debut title for others being introduced under the umbrella of Pressure Comics which will major on graphic novels focused on teen issues.