Computer Games: Educational Technology's Next Frontier?

from Educators' eZine

In 1972 an entrepreneur and electronics genius named Nolan Bushnell and his new company, "Atari," released PONG, a computer controlled game based upon table tennis. It allowed players to interact with primitive white shapes displayed against a black screen. Few could have imagined what this simple interphase of computer and human, created originally as an arcade game, would develop into over the course of the next generation.

Today the typical computer game contains a unique merging of three dimensional art, computer generated visual/audio effects, dramatic performances, music, storytelling, and interactivity. Computer games have become their own genre of entertainment. It is a genre known as 'gaming'. In 2007 gaming stands as a multi-billion dollar industry.

There can be no question that computer games are interwoven into the fabric of mainstream culture. According to "Essential Facts About the Computer and Videogame Industry", a 2006 study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association, sixty nine percent of American 'heads of household' play computer games. Thirty eight percent of game players are women, and twenty five percent of Americans over the age of fifty play computer games. The study goes on to say that the average game player is 33 years old and has been playing games for 12 years. Last year the Nielsen Group released a survey that indicated that the U.S. gaming market is diversifying. The age group among male players is expanding significantly, into the 25-45 age group.

Computer Games in Education
Academics currently researching the convergence of computer games and education are beginning to suggest that such games could play a significant role as an educational medium, as it is believed they help to develop skills important for children growing up in a technology-driven society. Needless to say, some educational computer games have an uncanny ability to hold the interest and attention of pupils far longer than more traditional teaching methods.

The negative opinion asserts that such games may impact negatively on the role of teachers. An even odder assertion is that introducing a computer-based learning system into the classroom would promote laziness amongst pupils. Computer game advocates believe that this opinion comes from the idea of computer games as being a non-social form of childsplay. They point to studies showing that even non-educational computer games can enhance a child's learning by encouraging students to seek alternatives, make predictions and inferences, navigate through unfamiliar processes, and make calculated decisions. That being said, what could be achieved by designing games specifically for educational goals?

Matthew Kaplowitz has long been a proponent of educational technology. His company, Bridge Multimedia, is currently finishing work on a fully accessible educational video game for the National Institutes of Health. "There is no doubt that technology has the capacity to engage students." says Kaplowitz. "The important consideration, for gaming or for any form of ed-tech, is that the educational content be rock solid. It needs to be well researched, curriculum driven, and in allignment with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). That is ultimately what the administrators will be looking for before they can sanction educational gaming."

Academics are working to address these very concerns. Dr. Michael Young, an assistant professor of computer science at North Carolina State's College of Engineering, is overseeing the North Carolina State University Computer Toolkit Project that will develop a game construction toolkit for teachers to use in building their own computer games. "Our goal is to help the instructors building the games to translate the concepts from their courses into a game where the game play is fun and also leads to the appropriate learning outcomes," Young says. Funded by a three year $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant, 15 teacher-leaders and 60 teacher-participants will learn how to use this technology to increase student science achievement.

Conference of Scientists
In 2005, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) summit on computer games focused on the theory that, used appropriately within a school curriculum, they might engage students and improve their performance. This summit presented speakers from a wide variety of fields. Michael Zyda, director of the University Of Southern California Viterbi School Of Engineering, spoke about his lab's research using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the subjects' cognitive reactions to video-game play. Also attending the summit was Eugene Hickok, deputy education secretary during President Bush's first term. Hickok said that nearly every institution has undergone profound changes because of the transition to digital communications in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. "The only social institution that has not changed is education," Hickok said.

In October, 2006 the Federation of American Scientists stated outright that computer games can redefine education by teaching analytical thinking, team building, multitasking, and problem solving under duress. The highly revered scientific organization called for the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation to 'lead the way'. Considering that the nation's top scientists are now championing computer games as learning tools and that the overall popularity of gaming continues to increase, it seems inevitable that this latest form of educational technology will eventually find a place inside of our schools. Gaming has come a long way since PONG.

Email:John Cavanagh