Getting it Wrong: Slaying Myths About Video Games (Part 2)

from Technology & Learning

Do video games and simulations really belong in the classroom? A growing body of evidence—from education conference sessions to ramped-up gaming research and university pilot programs—all point to the affirmative. However, sensationalized press accounts, a personal lack of familiarity with games, and other factors still contribute to a broad skepticism of their value by educators, parents, and the public. Last month, we addressed the first two of five commonly held myths about video games. Here, we examine the remaining three.

Myth #3—Learning elements leach all the fun out of games.

Critics have dubbed educational games "chocolate-covered broccoli," implying that trying to accomplish something serious in a video game doesn't suit the medium. In a recent article in Slate, frequent contributor Justin Peters states, "It's easier to make a fun game educational than it is to inject fun into an educational game." The critics have it half right. Poor game design will cripple any game, serious or commercial. Many of those creating educational games have not grounded themselves deeply enough in games and gaming culture to grasp what makes a great game. On the other hand, well-designed learning games like Oregon Trail, Civilization, and Quest Atlantis engage kids deeply and over long periods of time.

Numedeon's Whyville is an online community for tweens that focuses on science and math concepts. Created in 1999, it currently has 2.77 million registered users. Since 70 percent of Whyville users are girls, the site, in conjunction with the University of Texas, has created a range of activities around healthy eating and making better choices. (A recent study by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association indicates most teenage girls skip breakfast often and lack daily required doses of calcium.)

One of Whyville's nutrition activities involves "feeding" your avatar (online character) a daily balanced diet. Players can choose from a database that has extremely detailed nutritional information on 500 core foods. More than 125,000 Whyvillians have been playing this game for several months. Whyville has successfully engaged learners by injecting fun and social status into the game: if you don't eat enough calcium your avatar shows up swaddled in bandages; drink too much caffeine and your eyes goggle out; avoid fruits and vegetables and you get scurvy. Part of the fun is deliberately getting your avatar ill and then reestablishing health. Because much of the rest of the game involves social interaction, players pay a lot of attention to their avatar's appearance. Whyville has tapped tweens' interest in socializing and status to engage them with serious science.

Food for Thought: Whyville helps students learn about nutrition.

It's also a myth that video games are all about instant gratification. The most popular video games of all time are actually extremely complex puzzles, and they succeed because deep and difficult learning is fun in itself (the Zelda series, Myst, and Prince of Persia by Nintendo, Cyan, and Ubisoft, respectively, are just a few examples). "You'll often hear video games included in the list of debased instant gratifications that abound in our culture, right up there with raunchy music videos and fast food," says Steven Johnson in his 2005 book Everything Bad Is Good for You. "But compared to most forms of popular entertainment, games turn out to be all about delayed gratification—sometimes so long delayed that you wonder if the gratification is ever going to show."

In Civilization, players have to guide their particular civilization through several historical eras and balance a wide range of priorities to be successful. Completing a game can take several weeks, with players encountering different challenges along the way. For example, if you build temples and schools your civilization will innovate faster than your neighbor's. You can also win territory through cultural supremacy, but if you don't build enough military units, more bellicose countries will quickly overrun you. Conversely, if you invest everything in the military your innovation will lag—you definitely don't want to be shouldering muskets while your neighbors are discovering aircraft. The game is essentially a large-scale, long-term puzzle of constantly shifting resource allocation.

Civilization players learn that a society is a large-scale puzzle of shifting resource allocation.

In World of Warcraft, players develop specialized professions that allow them to make materials they can use or sell to other players. Leatherworking, mining, alchemy, and cooking are just a few examples. It takes sustained focus over dozens of hours of game play to fully develop a profession, and because you can have only two primary professions, switching jobs carries a high cost. My 13-yearold son decided to switch from skinning and leatherworking to mining and blacksmithing so that he could build better armor for his character. This took him several weeks. He roamed the entire game world in search of resources and relied on other players for guidance and encouragement as he worked his way through this transition. This is a kid who regularly misplaces homework assignments and can't seem to keep his room clean. But for several weeks he could tell me in detail what he was working on and the next steps toward his ultimate goal in the game. All the while, he learned great lessons about persistence, focus, goals, and networking.

Myth #4—Teachers don't need to be involved in the game; kids can do it on their own.

As with any effective classroom learning experience, successful game-based learning relies on the guidance of a well-informed teacher. One of the huge advantages designers have when building educational games for the classroom is that they can bank on the presence of an adult to direct game play discussions toward connections with real-world concepts (or "meatspace," as gamers sometimes refer to it).

David Shaffer, associate professor of learning science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, put it this way in his 2006 book How Computer Games Help Children Learn: "Wandering around in a rich computer environment without guidance is a bad way to learn. Learners are novices, and letting them work in a simulation without support leads to the very real human tendency to look for patterns and to develop creative but spurious generalizations." He continues, "The knowledge that matters in any domain is the knowledge that experts have—the knowledge they use to see the world, solve problems, and justify their answers."

Until recently, there has been a dearth of strong professional development materials to help teachers integrate games into their classrooms. This is changing. A new wave of resources includes an increasing number of game-centered sessions at education conferences, a range of commercial training products, and a new focus on games in schools of education.

At the National Educational Computing Conference in June, there were 18 sessions addressing how to incorporate games into core curriculum areas, including reading, writing, algebra, history, physics, biology, environmental studies, public health, nutritional studies, and art.

Developer Muzzy Lane and the Game Institute, a U.S.-UK partnership offering online courses and certification in game development, have jointly produced a course titled "Using Games in Education." This professional development course covers the learning principles behind educational games, offers practical tips from teachers and professors already using games, and trains educators in how to select the right games for their classrooms and how to prepare themselves and students for the whole gaming experience.

Certain graduate schools of education are now following the lead of MIT and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which began developing and piloting games and offering educator training in their joint initiative, the Education Arcade, back in the early 2000s. Professor James Paul Gee, education game expert and author of the 2003 book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, was recently recruited from the University of Wisconsin to the School of Education at Arizona State University in order to ramp up a game program there. Other universities that have started formal programs in video game design and usage include Stanford, the University of Indiana, the University of Central Florida, Harvard, Caltech, and Southern Methodist University.

Professional development—a necessary precursor to the widespread adoption of video games in classrooms—has a long way to go. Bringing more resources to bear on this will require decision makers to move past prejudices and stereotypes. The good news is that foundations have been laid and there are resources available today to get started (see "Getting Started with Games").

Myth #5—There isn't any scientifically based research to support the use of video games for learning.

There is an impressive and growing international body of research documenting the learning impact modern video games can have.

The River City Project at Harvard's Graduate School of Education is a longitudinal set of studies that simulate a public health crisis in a 19th-century city to track the impact of learning games on low-performing students. In 2005 the studies' preliminary findings showed that students learned biology content and were highly engaged, attendance increased, and disruptive behavior decreased. They also noted that students "were building 21st-century skills in virtual communication and expression, and importantly, that using this type of technology in the classroom can facilitate good inquiry learning."

Indiana University Professor of Instructional Systems Technology and Cognitive Science Sasha Barab and his team have conducted a series of research reports on the Quest Atlantis project that touch on how role-playing is important to understanding scientific practice. As one report notes, "The use of gaming technologies and design methodologies allowed us to design a world in which students had a legitimate role in uncovering and solving an ecological mystery. We incorporated interactive rule sets that acknowledged student progress and rewarded productive scientific practices."

At the recent Games, Learning & Society Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, Constance Steinkuehler of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Educational Communication & Technology department presented a study that measured the use of the scientific method in online WoW forums. After parsing more than 2,000 comments from an online forum related to the game, her team found that these discussions are models of solid scientific practice. Future studies will explore if this is an outcome of participating in the game culture or if gamers self-select for this mind-set.

Video games have become a cultural force on par with music and are approaching the film industry in size and reach. Educators have been slow to add these tools to regular classroom practice because of a combination of real and imagined barriers. What is most tantalizing to those of us in the Serious Games movement is the idea that we could instill the kind of fanatical devotion and concentration that games like WoW do, but do it with instructional content rather than just dragon slaying. Not that there's anything wrong with slaying a few dragons once in a while.

Getting Started with Games

The following is an excerpt from the article "Not Just Fun and Games," by Susan McLester, which appeared in the 2006 CoSN Compendium.

Educator Bill MacKenty's tips for teachers interested in taking the first steps toward game integration:

  1. Buy a few copies of a "gold standard" game (Civilization, Age of Empires, SimCity, etc.) and try them out!
  2. Ask your social studies/history teacher for current curriculum goals and how you can support those goals in your classroom.
  3. Form an after-school computer club. Tell the kids what you are trying. Trust me, they want us to succeed and will be more than happy to help us find the educational component to a game.
  4. When using multiple learning stations, incorporate games. This also works if you only have two or three computers in a classroom.