Using video games in the classroom is nothing new.
Like most children of the ’80s, many of my earliest memories of using a computer involve “The Oregon Trail“. Developed by a student teacher to supplement his history class, The Oregon Trail allowed students to get a glimpse of life in 19th Century America while also teaching them budgeting, decision-making skills, and how to hunt for buffalo (or waste your time shooting squirrels).
Today, instructors are using more complex video games to teach students about the scientific method, physics, math and literacy. It’s a strategic move by educators who hope to capitalize on the popularity of video games (97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games) and keep students engaged in the learning process.
In the same vein as Oregon Trail or Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? some gamemakers are designing video games with a specific educational purpose. MIT-based The Education Arcade’s newest game, Caduceus , is a puzzle game for tweens focused on logic, reason and creativity skills.
It’s also designed to promote compassion:
Caduceus is a key content element of a new pediatric medical research awareness…designed to help parents teach their children to care about others and believe they can make a difference.
Another gamemaker, Education Simulations, created “Real Lives 2007” to let students experience how people live in other countries. Based on real statistical data, the game randomly assigns the user an identity – such as a factory worker in Brazil or a policeman in Nigeria – and teaches them life skills while letting them explore the global community.
Of course, “educational” games are a double-edged sword; the same elements that make them explicitly educational discourage students from playing them. Few of these games will be played outside of the classroom.
In response, some instructors are reappropriating mainstream games for educational purposes.
In a commentary for Wired, Clive Thompson tells us about the “eureka!” moment for Constance Steinkuehler – an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison – who discovered that many of the teenage boys playing online games such as Lineage or World of Warcraft were employing the scientific method to figure out how to beat game bosses.
A group of [the teenagers] were building Excel spreadsheets into which they’d dump all the information they’d gathered about how each boss behaved…Then they’d develop a mathematical model to explain how the boss worked — and to predict how to beat it…Some would offer up new data they’d collected, and suggest tweaks to the model.
That’s when it hit her: The kids were practicing science….They were using the scientific method. They’d think of a hypothesis — This boss is really susceptible to fire spells — and then collect evidence to see if the hypothesis was correct. If it wasn’t, they’d improve it until it accounted for the observed data.
Thompson goes on to point out that these same kids are “the same ones who are, more and more, tuning out of science in the classroom. ” The instructor’s job is to harness the high-level thinking skills young people use to beat a video game and apply it to real-world mysteries.
Of course, with the bad press video games have gotten for being violent and socially isolating, schools are understandably skeptical about allowing games in the classroom. Certainly, some games shouldn’t ever be condoned by educators.
But many games are safe and provide educators with a tremendous opportunity to engage their students.