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Lost in Time

Michael Gouda reveals how an Email adventure came into being

Micro User '90

In the May issue of The Micro User Marshal Anderson described how Bradwell Village School met the mysterious Zorg and rescued two 17th century children from his evil clutches via an electronic mail service.

Although I must own up to being the author of this adventure game, the other end of the story was run by some fifth year pupils of Evesham High School who, with a little help, worked out the story and kept the adventure going for a term.

I became interested in the project after reading about some work done in Derbyshire with live adventuring. Here a school had co-opted an established author to plan out a story and be on hand to keep it going whatever replies were received from the correspondents. What Derbyshire could do, surely Hereford and Worcestershire could emulate? And over the summer holidays a friend and I worked out a rough draft of a history involving two children, Jason and Emelda, lost in time and suffering from amnesia. Only historical research about their roots would return them home.

It was not necessary to work out all the details at the start as these would depend on the reactions of the target school. Ideally the plot should have been invented by the pupils, but there wasn’t enough time, as I wanted to start at the beginning of term.

The Campus 2000 electronic mail network provides an index of all the schools which belong to the system divided into counties and it is interesting to see, by virtue of the number of middle schools, how generous some education authorities are: Hampshire has 103 primary and middle schools subscribing, but others have none.

I chose 10 schools with a pin and three replied, of which Bradwell Village was by far the most enthusiastic. The first message asking for help was sent and lay in wait for any unsuspecting pupils to find.

Meanwhile my group of fifth years - who were doing an Information Technology GCSE course and English - awaited the outcome. We planned that the tasks should work from the individuals outwards. First there would be easy questions which could be answered merely from picture books: For example, what are the children wearing? Emelda’s reaction to wearing ruffs was a hint about the Roundhead/Cavalier conflict that the Bradwell pupils soon discovered.

Then we asked them about a wider social area -17th century food, travel, medicine, entertainment, and that got them really researching with a vast quantity of information gleaned from their library.

Eventually we asked about various notables of the time and got them to find out about the political/religious situation which led to the execution of Charles I in 1649which, by sheer coincidence, happened to be the year the children had come from.

Although this sounds rather dry and academic, as soon as the pupils became interested in Jason and Emelda’s fate they were only too willing to provide as much information as they could in the hope that it would rehabilitate them and take them back to their own time.

They found out about Inigo Jones, William Harvey, Hooke, Boyle and Napier though they failed to discover the name of Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor and the author of New Atlantis - whom Jason’s father had supposedly been named after.

Added to this was the character of Zorg - who, incidentally, was not an alien, but a technologically advanced human from the 23rd century who stepped in occasionally to forbid the children doing further research - and so guaranteed to do the opposite!

We had some difficulty making him credible, though a little inside information allowed him to reveal some interesting facts from his database about his chief sceptics.

A primary target, naturally, was the ability to use an electronic mail system. Until this escapade we’d only had some desultory and trivial conversations which hardly justified the enormous subscription costs of Campus 2000.

There was a social value, we thought, in linking a middle school to a secondary even if the former never really knew who they were talking to. one of the things I was determined to avoid was any tendency to talk down to the juniors.

My authors had to keep in character, as Jason and Emelda were the chronological contemporaries of the Bradwell pupils. Of course they could go to town with Zorg, who on occasions got downright nasty.

The research element was very important on both sides, and if we did it again we might structure it a little better. The middle school pupils found out a vast amount of disparate information which could, perhaps, have been more valuable if better organised. However what really did come over was the genuine desire to help two people in trouble.

At the Evesham end the pupils had to draw on literary skills they had probably never used before. Although the general plot skeleton was there, the answers from Bradwell were hardly ever the expected ones and the lively imaginations of these 12-year-olds tested our brains to the full. The experience was a valuable one as regards IT where all pupils explored the Email system using word processing and passwords, plus creating and solving coded messages. I also thought it successful in the pupils having to think about fictional character formation and the way this is expressed in language.

I encouraged very formal language structure for the two 17th century children though they differed a great deal in outlook, while Zorg enthusiastically indulged in some of the worst excesses of the stereotyped teacher - at the same time remembering that he did come from three centuries into the future.

The final defeat of Zorg was met with great rejoicing from the Buckinghamshire end, and Jason and Emelda were whisked back to their own time.

From the replies it was obvious that some of the middle school pupils took these messages from the time travellers with considerably more than a pinch of salt, but there must have been some who, if not actually believing in Jason and Emelda, wanted to.