Getting It Wrong: Slaying Myths About Video Games (Part 1)

from Technology & Learning

Two years ago I began to play World of Warcraft as a way to stay in touch with my teenage sons while I was on the road.

WoW is the market leader of a new generation of computer games characterized as "massively multiplayer"—more than 9 million people around the globe play Blizzard Entertainment's WoW together on the Internet. In the evenings my sons and I would meet online, playing and chatting about our day and the things we were doing in the game.

Massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft help users engage complex thinking skills.

After a few weeks something about the underlying structure of the game began to look very familiar. When you look past the Orcs, Gnomes, and other fanciful inhabitants and elements, you find Blizzard has built an elegant and engaging learning management system. WoW does an outstanding job of guiding players to their zone of proximal development and provides a neverending stream of feedback and fresh challenges while leaving the player in charge. My guess is that philosopher and psychologist Jean Piaget would be proud and amused to see his ideas implemented in this context and on such a global scale.

Slowly I began to unlearn everything I thought I knew about video games. I read New York Times science writer Steven Johnson's 2005 book Everything Bad Is Good for You, where he makes the compelling case that the hefty cognitive load of engaging in popular culture is steadily expanding our intellectual capacity. Video games, cultural phenomena since the late '70s, are a big part of this trend. The first thing any video game has to do is teach the player how to use it. Games that fail at this challenge fail in the market for the simple reason that players just abandon them. As a result, video game developers have become adept practitioners of some of the best findings of cognitive neuroscience. Games are also complex problem-solving systems that develop logical thinking, decision making, and encourage a scientific approach to the unknown.

I have since discovered a very vibrant community of academics, educators, students, and business types who agree that video games have a powerful potential for learning and training. As well, there is a growing body of practice, products, and research to support the notion that games are a valuable addition to the set of tools teachers are using in formal education.

But real barriers abound. Among them are the general unfamiliarity of educators with the modern gaming world, the inability of games to fit neatly into the traditional class timeframe, and the lack of evaluation tools to measure what is being learned. Many of these are being addressed with innovative and flexible solutions (see T&L's October 2005 feature "Game Play"). However, many additional perceived barriers to integrating video games into learning are ill-founded. In fact, there are a number of well-circulated myths that have reinforced widespread negative attitudes toward games. Following, we address those myths.

Muzzy Lane's Making History simulates pre-WWII Europe.

Myth #1—Games are all about twitch speed, not higher order thinking skills.

When most people think about video games for learning they think of titles from the mid-'90s that were basically animated flash cards. Math Blaster, Mavis Beacon, and most of what is sold as "edutainment" fit this profile. These games are fairly rigid, linear, and reward answering a question quickly rather than thinking through complex problems.

By contrast the best of today's games put players into complex simulations they can freely explore. Educators have always used simulations to help students connect content to real-world examples—to wit, the "a train leaves New York going 45 mph and another leaves Buffalo going 35 mph…" math simulation.

What video games allow are much richer simulations that can form the basis of deep classroom discussions spanning multiple subject areas. Players are challenged to tackle deeply nested problems, and there are multiple paths to success. Meanwhile, they're attuning themselves to the game's culture, the human social context.

In Railroad Tycoon (Firaxis Games), players build and manage stations, gaining knowledge of history, science, economics, and geography in the process.

In one of the many scenarios in Railroad Tycoon (Firaxis Games), players have to find the most efficient railroad route between New York and Buffalo. It turns out that running your trains up the Hudson River Valley rather than the much more direct route through the mountains is the most efficient way despite a much longer track. In addition to this challenge, players have to build stations in the most profitable spots, buy locomotives balancing speed against cost, encourage economic development to generate rail traffic, and run their railroad profitably. History, science, economics, and geography all come into play.

Muzzy Lane's Making History is another excellent example. This game simulates Europe just before World War II. Teams of students are assigned to lead individual countries, and as they take turns the game uses a combination of real economic and military data, historical events, and the choices of the teams to allow the students to "play" history. Teachers have reported finding groups of students in the lunchroom arguing about the Potsdam Conference. They have also observed emergent forms of leadership as students initiate informal diplomatic negotiations around the classroom. This game draws on the core academic disciplines of reading, math, and social studies while also encouraging teamwork, initiative, creativity, problem solving, and leadership.

In the examples given above there is no right answer, only multiple paths to success, and there is as much to be learned from failure as from success. Most important, the games encourage students to use core academic skills in the pursuit of solving complex problems. Thinking deeply, not flicking buttons, is key.

The ReDistricting Game actually makes drawing congressional districts exciting.

Myth #2—Games are just about violence and sex.

Some notorious games like Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar Games) and Postal (Running with Scissors) have drawn press and political attention for extreme violence and sexual situations. Given the level of coverage these titles have earned it is easy for those who are not exposed to the much larger gaming world to assume that all games are like this.

In fact, there have always been lots of video games that don't fit this profile. Venerable titles like SimCity (Maxis), which allows users to build and manage a metropolis, and Civilization (Firaxis Games), where players guide a civilization from its founding to the space age, have been used in classrooms for years. The Learning Company's Oregon Trail pioneered this market, allowing students to retrace the steps of history and to bring to life the challenges and decisions that settlers faced.

Titles like Peacemaker can increase players' awareness of international issues, like peace negotiations in the Middle East.

The Serious Games initiative, spearheaded by Ben Sawyer, is a consortium of developers and academics that is building games for educational, social, military, medical, and corporate environments. Recent titles have tackled subjects like Mid-East negotiations (Peacemaker), refugees (United Nations World Food Programme's Food Force), global warming (CO2FX), mental calisthenics (Nintendo's Big Brain Academy), gerrymandering (the ReDistricting Game), and environmental studies (Quest Atlantis). The military has successfully used games to simulate the cultural negotiation needed in Iraq to give soldiers an opportunity to practice before going overseas.

In Quest Atlantis, players focus on environmental issues as they assume the role of a field researcher helping a community wrestling with declining water quality. As they explore the world, they interview loggers, environmentalists, municipal workers, and native tribes. They also take measurements and use the scientific method to understand what they are seeing. Students make recommendations for how to deal with the problems that balance science, social equity, and economics.

A related concern is the perception that any game used in the classroom has to compete with the slick production values of commercial games. This too turns out to be false. A good example is the ReDistricting Game from USC's Annenberg Center, which challenges players to draw up new congressional districts. This simple, Web-based game (anyone with a browser can play) puts the player in the hot seat to meet a range of conflicting goals by juggling demographic data, legal requirements, and political demands. You have to satisfy members of your own party while also satisfying a judge's legal review, incumbents of both parties, and citizen feedback. In the process you use math to make sure districts are relatively even in population but drastically different in party affiliation. Players also gain an understanding of our political party system and the ability to work with interactive cartography (the game interface is a map). ReDistricting makes gerrymandering a visceral experience rather than an abstract concept batted around on the editorial page.

Lee Wilson is an education business veteran who consults on strategy, marketing, and sales issues for technology and print publishers.

Click here for the second part of "Getting It Wrong: Slaying Myths About Video Games," which appears in our October issue.

Educational Games Resources

"References and Resources for Using Education Games and Simulations in the Classroom" (Software and Information Industry Association)

Terra Nova blog

Richard Carey blog

Educational Games blog

Games, Learning and Society conference

Serious Games

Serious Games initiative

"Using Games in Education"
(Muzzy Lane/The Game Institute)