Instructions: Zack & Wiki Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure

I wanted to use a computer game as integral part of our Year 1 Pirate theme. We had touched on this with the Epic Citadel app during our Cinderella theme and it had helped create high levels of motivation and engagement with the children. I began by looking for an ‘explore and walk’ type game similar to Myst or the aforementioned Epic Citadel but couldn’t find anything that I felt would achieve what I was after. So I turned towards the second Literacy unit we were learning about during Pirates, Instructions. Now, if you are new to game based learning, instructions are a great way in. Basically, pick almost any game where you need to sequence instructions in any form (e.g. a puzzle game, a series of control moves etc) and you have great engaging content for writing.

I had seen Zack & Wiki when I was searching for an ‘explore and walk’ type game but had dismissed it due to the cartoon setting and its 7+ age range. However after discussions on twitter, @dawnhallybone raised the idea of using the game again and I looked further into it. The game itself is a straight down the line Puzzler. You control Zack (and Wiki) as you try and collect parts of Barbarosa (a slightly evil and very dead pirate) across various levels of increasing complexity. I had a quick go and felt it had all the right elements for use in the classroom. Apart from that pesky 7+ age rating (primarily because you can ‘die’ on each level, e.g. Prince of Persia style spikes, an Indiana Jones style boulder. I’m talking no blood and minor scare factor so felt it was worth proceeding to find out more).

I was pointed in the direction of Dan Bowen who was extremely helpful and recommended sending out a letter to parents explicitly explaining the use of the game in the context of the learning and making it clear we were not ‘promoting’ the game or the 7+ content (which was negligible in the levels we would be looking at). So I did and did not receive a single concern from any parent.

We didn’t start the unit with the game as I wanted the children to experience hands on multi-sensory style style oral instructions as it would offer them the best chance of fully understanding the point of instructions, so we went for the classic ‘How to Make a Sandwich’. Which they loved and it helped them right from the start understand the need for clear, precise instructions.

After that we introduced the game. Initially as a whole class and then in small groups where the children could orally give each other commands (i.e. instructions) which was a massive benefit in terms of Phase 2 of the Primary Framework, focusing on oral rehearsal as an aid to subsequent writing.

As we are a two form entry school, each of our classes then told our children that the other class were struggling with one of the levels, so we would be writing a set of instructions for them, creating an audience and purpose.

The extent of the impact that the game had on oral rehearsal was truly amazing and worth labouring the point. Which I have just done but I think it is worth mentioning that I think this goes wider than the context of Zack and Wiki. A critical benefit from many games is the positive impact it can have on Phase 2 and therefore the subsequent writing phase.

As a finale to the unit, as our extended write we moved away from the game to see how well the children could transfer their new skills. So we buried some chocolate money ‘treasure’ in a big metal box in the grounds of the school. We then wrote instructions explaining to our parallel class how to find the treasure. Looking at the skills they displayed in these independent extended writes, the fact that the majority of the unit had been through a computer game had clearly not had anything other than a positive effect on them and their writing. For many I believe this will be a standout memory from their time in Year 1, just as our use of Mario Kart has been when I taught in Year 4.

Towards the end of our Pirate theme we invited parents in for a learning conference afternoon and had Zack and Wiki on with children demonstrating its use. Every single comment that parents made during the afternoon was of interest, excitement and most importantly ‘I get it’ in terms of why we were using the game to impact on learning.

Below is one of my ‘slightly above middle’ achieving boy’s extended write. I hope this post goes some way to inspire others to take use games in the classroom. The game itself is merely a tool like any other to support learning… But what a tool!

Originally published at on March 25, 2011.