Game On!

by Nicole on July 13, 2011

105868911Educators of all levels are constantly looking for way to integrate the technologies, content, and practices of popular culture into their classrooms. Most of their students are immersed in this world, and accessing educational advantages through the newest technologies is an excellent way to facilitate learning, even on the college level. The driving forces of our pop culture evolution are communications and information technologies, which are simultaneously increasing the size of our world while bringing us closer together.

While its potential applications are both obvious and open-ended with respect to education, gaming is one aspect of this electronic revolution that has largely been seen as an isolated sub-trend, that’s more of a hindrance to learning than an asset. Decrying the amount of time that students spend playing video games is a common lament, and educators have often expressed the opinion that there are much better uses of time available. However, we are no longer talking about teenagers and their X-boxes. We now know that twenty and thirty-somethings now spend equivalent time “playing” on such “grown-up” games as FarmVille, WII games, and that damn phenomenon that is Angry Birds.

The Value of Simulations for Post-Secondary Learning

Until now, it’s been standard practice for colleges to ban students from gaming on campus computers. But eventually a few forward-thinking teachers saw an opportunity where others saw only useless distraction. It occurred to these educators that games relevant to academic activities and issues could be created, and that generations who had grown up with gaming might respond very positively to this kind of learning.

Efforts to invent this new genre of games are still in the early stages, which is why professors have frequently had to take it upon themselves to contract programmers, developers, designers, writers, and artists to reprogram existing games or create brand-new ones from scratch.

In the latter category is a game created by journalism professors Kathleen Hansen and Nora Paul at the University of Minnesota. Working with Department of Journalism Systems Administrator Scott Dierks, professors Hansen and Paul modified the medieval adventure game Neverwinter Nights. Their modified version presents a scenario to journalism students where a train crashes in a small town and releases a cloud of poisonous gas, after which the students must travel to this town in their roles as reporters to get the full story by interviewing residents. The professors wrote the script for the game, while Dierks solved campus access issues so students would be able to play the game on any campus computer.

At the University of North Carolina, economics professor Dr. Jeffrey Sarbaum worked with a whole coterie of computer software experts to invent a game that allows students to build a new economic system from the ground up in a future post-apocalyptic Earth. While the journalism game at the University of Minnesota puts students in a realistic role-playing situation, Dr. Sarbaum’s creation uses a science fiction scenario where students are actually aliens who come to resettle a dead planet. Another difference is that while professors Hansen and Paul use their game as a classroom exercise, Sarbaum’s game is actually the entire course. It takes eight weeks to finish, and students receive their final grade based on their online gaming performance.

Gaming and Learning Theory

Such games put students in situations where they become characters in unique, unpredictable worlds and the student’s ability to make calculations, draw inferences, and solve problems are directly put to the test. Video games adapted for an educational setting are proven examples of a theory of learning called constructivism, which maintains that people learn by altering their beliefs about the world through personal experience, creating their own distinctive sense of identity as they go along.

People learn through active engagement in the world – and while the worlds of video games are not real in the usual sense, the steps that people go through as they play and try to master them is a simulation or approximation of what happens in real life. Imaginary situations, whether realistic or fantasy, are an interactive way of getting students more deeply involved in their own educational process.

The Future

Games can be an excellent way to get students to be creative and use their imaginations. Of course game playing of all types has been going on in classrooms for many decades, but video games can be especially effective because they can be tailored so easily to fit the demands of particular classes and subject matter. Additionally, the virtual worlds they create have become more and more realistic as digital technology has advanced. Those who study technological trends in education are predicting that gaming in higher education is going to really take off over the next few years. Ten years from now, it’s expected that professionally-produced educational video games will be available for every subject and class that is offered anywhere on a college campus, anywhere in the world.

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terrance
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