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Pictures: images from 'Tales of Iona'
Pictures: images from 'Tales of Iona'

Tales of Iona

Monday March 14 2016

Dr David R Smith describes the development of a new online game designed to share the treasures of Iona with a new generation


The Isle of Iona has a rich history and a pivotal role in the unfolding story of Scottish Christianity. For centuries, through to the present-day, this liminal place of pilgrimage has attracted people from afar.

How can any of this mystery, wonder, and richness, be conveyed to school children and young people? Although not the exact question put to us; this was the substance of the task that my team (Professor Do Coyle, Katrina Foy, Aloyise Mulligan and myself) at the University of Aberdeen’s School of Education was set by our funding body, the Iona Cathedral Trust. Their charitable remit seeks to ‘advance the education of the public in relation to the history, culture, and heritage of Iona Cathedral and the Island of Iona’. Possibilities abounded.

Our first step in early 2014 was curricular, with the realisation that Iona’s story could not be placed in pigeon holes in neat curriculum areas, or restricted to Religious and Moral Education alone. Rather, there were meaningful connections that could be made with expressive arts, through illuminated manuscripts; through to modern studies, which could be seen in Iona’s stories of nuclear disarmament and community-based explorations of social justice.

With this fuller recognition of the potential for Iona’s stories within the Scottish curriculum, we considered the most appropriate ways through which this learning could be experienced. Following lively conversation and sketching of ideas, the team decided: to focus upon P6-S3 learners; to create something that would support teachers’ interpretation of the Scottish curriculum; and to adopt the very latest learning approaches in the form of game-based learning.

I am sure that many of you know ‘gamers’, even if you do not play video games yourself. Perhaps you have said to a grandchild or spouse something like: ‘stop playing games and get on with your work’. It is well known amongst educationalists, however, that play and learning are connected (and this can be extended to electronic games, also).

To progress the project, we approached Abertay University: the UK’s first ever university Centre for Excellence in Computer Games Education, and were pointed towards Hyper Luminal Games Ltd; a company that is owned by a former Masters student at Abertay.

Over the ensuing months, the game designers began to bring to life our concept and design brief. They learned about Columba, pilgrimage, and learning theory – while we were introduced by them to the programming possibilities of Unity WebGL, gaming narrative writing, and wider gaming principles.

Technical challenges were encountered and overcome: sometimes intractable problems, which at first sight appeared to overly compromise our educational design principles. However, solutions were found and the game began to take shape.

It was to be mysterious and magical. A ‘spooky’ monk figure would guide gamers through the learning – challenging them along the way. Puzzles would seek to improve players’ thinking skills, while knowledge would be embedded in the game’s narrative. The Iona Abbey Library, a place of learning through the centuries, would be the virtual entry point through which gamers could learn about Columba and pilgrimage. Beyond this, the game would seek to spark curiosity: the virtual library providing a place through which learning can be taken further.

Young people and teachers were involved throughout the development, providing feedback and shaping the way forward.

Tales of Iona is now live and children’s names are being added to the scoreboard. Positive reviews are also being received.

Meg Stanger, a second year pupil at Aberdeen Grammar School, said: “I felt this helped me learn more than if someone was just telling me what happened on Iona, because 
I could work through it independently and at my own pace. I really liked all of the tasks/games you had to complete, because I found some of them very hard and challenging and some others were a bit easier.”

To play Tales of Iona, free, visit The game works in all major browsers and can be downloaded for playing offline.