Home > College > The Unexplored Potential for Education With Games

The Unexplored Potential for Education With Games

[What follows is a paper I wrote for English class, turned in last week. It was an interesting enough topic to me that I drafted the entire seven pages in one sitting, and have only made minor modifications since then. The source list has been omitted for legibility.]

Ever since the first game of Tennis for Two was played on an oscilloscope, video games have been a target for much attention. Usually this attention unduly emphasizes the negative aspects – real or imagined – of video games, and attempts to vilify them. However, there is one context in which gaming has received astonishingly little study: education. In her article “The Design of Games-Based Learning Environments,” Bergoña Gros advocates a position that video games are an underused teaching tool with great promise. In her own words, she believes that teachers “need to change [their] teaching methods to enhance the skills that future citizens will need in a digital society.” (p. 23) Her thesis is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. Being a gamer from before I was literate, I believe I can lend some credence to the claims Gros makes. Starting around age 3 with basic side-scrolling games like Commander Keen, going all the way up to modern hits like Half-Life 2, with a host of games between, I’ve been around the gaming block a few times. These qualifications in hand, I will support and extend a number of points Gros makes, while quibbling with a few points I must object to, or at least modify.

The first of these points is Gros’s statement that video games can — and should — be equated with books in terms of the inherent teaching potential. I am continually astonished at how difficult a point this seems to be to grasp for some. Just as there are books that advocate violence, so are there video games that do likewise. This is not a flaw with the medium, but instead with the material.

Gros goes on to mention how video games have the potential to be even better teaching aids than the age-old textbook, because of the way that the unique properties of video games “promote challenges, co-operation, engagement, and the development of problem-solving strategies.” (p. 23) As Gros has astutely noted, video games have the advantage of being interactive, a trait books and movies can only dream of. Thanks to this, video games can be vastly more intuitive, as well as fun. Reading the description of games that promote challenges and co-operation reminds me of grade-school days spent huddled around a computer with classmates to play the various educational games it contained. Being built for — and played by — nine year olds, the games were predictably simple. However, they contained just the right amount of strategy, in the form of trade-offs such as taking a shortcut that posed tougher challenges than the easier, longer route. They were also limited in the number of players that could play at one time, so that any time a superfluous person wanted to join in, an impromptu confederation was formed with another classmate. It was the sort of collective problem-solving that higher-grade teachers couldn’t extract by force with group projects or team-based activities.

To break from the nostalgia, I must momentarily reverse direction and take issue with a statement that Gros made among the earlier statements in characterizing some video games as misogynistic. Based on my personal experience, I have to disagree with this assessment, because I’ve found that when video games show gender bias, it is usually in favor of females. There are a number of games that have female characters that are regarded by some as being more powerful than their male counterparts: Street Fighter II and Soul Calibur both come to mind. But even these are rather rare examples. Because it would hurt the game to allow gender bias to make male characters more powerful in some way than female ones, it is the prevailing trend to make the genders equivalent.

Later, Gros especially singles out the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game Age of Empires II (AoEII) for its excellent educational value: not only is it firmly grounded in history, but it conveys that history in passing to the player. Having played AoEII myself, I would have to agree that it is an excellent example of a game that tricks the player into learning. By starting the player off in the Copper Age and only allowing him certain limited technologies, it gives an accurate idea of the nature of such a technology level. But in the course of the game, the player also advances through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age, each time gaining more and more technological might. The game even goes so far as to give each playable faction, such as the Mongols or the Turks, a unique property that reflects that faction’s historical impact. But to shift from the macro to the micro, even the details are realistic and historic. For example, instead of harvesting fantasy crystals as some other RTS games do, AoEII requires the player to maintain farms and flocks, and to harvest grain and meat from them in the proper amounts to preserve sustainability. If a player kills all of his sheep for the immediate payoff of meat, he will find himself sorely lacking before long. And finally, the nature of the RTS game makes it an excellent thinking puzzle. Because RTS games such as AoEII consist of a “build your base, build your army, conquer your enemy” formula, they require the right strategic balance between militarism and development for success, as well as prudent tactical thinking to achieve victory on the battlefield. The analytical skills taught by such an exercise are unparalleled in any other form of education aside from mock battles in war games.

In contrast, Gros points out that “most edutainment has failed because the games were too simplistic in comparison with competing video games,” (p. 25) referring to a genre of gaming named for a portmanteau of “education” and “entertainment.” The term edutainment is especially used on games that have learning as their chief focus. This is usually done with the intent to make the game as educational as possible; however, a game offers no education if the player doesn’t play it because it is boring or otherwise unsatisfying. Gros ably summarizes this by saying that “in [edutainment], content is the most important thing, while the experience is the most important aspect of a game.” (p. 30) To return to doting on Age of Empires II, it is certainly worth noting that it was a game first and an educator second. Above all else, I played it because it was fun. It didn’t attempt to force me to learn history in order to do well, but instead slipped the history in while my back was turned, as it were. Even the old grade-school games that used to fascinate me entertained with cartoon robots jockeying for position in a race across a futuristic space station, where solving problems was a means to an end — winning the race with style — instead of an end to itself.

Gros then moves to hitting two points of interest to me in a single sweep of the pen: “Because computer game playing might be a precursor to computer literacy, and the belief that computer literacy will be increasingly important for success in society, the gender imbalance in computer game playing has been a topic of recent discussion.” (p. 27) The first of these points is the suggestion that video games and computer literacy are somehow linked does not sit well with me. In a general and academic sense, computer literacy is commonly used to refer to the ability to use “applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, database management programs, electronic mail, and packages and applications specific to [a] field of study.” (Information, 2007). It is my position that, beyond basic familiarization with input/output devices — I’m thinking specifically of the keyboard, mouse, and monitor — there is little “computer literacy” learned from playing computer games, even in an educational setting. However, I don’t believe Gros is entirely off-base, either. I would suggest, based on my personal experience, that a correlation between computer literacy and computer games is caused by some third, unknown factor. If I were to hazard a guess, I would feel secure in venturing that it is simply the prevalence of technology around the student. If a student has access to a computer to play games on, he likely has access to a computer for other uses as well.

Gros also notes, in the above quoted passage, “a gender imbalance in computer game playing.” (p. 27) Gros elaborates to say that, in general, girls approach games with a different mindset than that of boys, and that attempts to cater to this have been largely unsuccessful, with the notable exception of a life simulator by the name of The Sims.Much like Age of Empires II, there is a great deal to be learned from examination of The Sims. The Sims takes, as its premise, day to day life. Players create characters and assign them a balance of personality traits, then construct houses for them, populating the houses with furniture and appliances. Then the actual simulation begins, usually with one or more of the characters finding a job to bring income (in order to pay the bills, naturally), and doing many of the other tasks typical of everyday life. (My description hardly does the game justice; it really is an interesting experience.) Gros states that her research has shown that girls, on average, spend more time than boys designing aesthetic elements of the play experience, such as character appearances and house decoration. In contrast, boys generally are more eager to get the game up and running, to begin the active playing portion. I can safely say that I categorically agree with Gros’s findings in this case, because I have run into exactly the same disparity in the microcosm of my sister and myself sharing a game of The Sims. Where I would often design rudimentary housing for my characters with the intent to improve it later, my sister would always begin with a nice place for her characters to reside, even if it meant cutting some corners, such as having only one bathroom. I would also often find myself infuriated by how long she would pause the game for — a neat addition that makes the game a bit easier than real life. Another interesting contrast is the fact that I would generally have one or two families I was actively playing at any given time, where my sister would have two or three times as many. Perhaps it wasn’t the playing that interested her as much as the creation, a supposition which Gros’s research would seem to support.

On the whole, I find my experiences bear out Gros’s findings, especially where I have had personal experience with the games that Gros uses as case studies. Aside from minutiae, I broadly agree with the paper. It is hard to nail down any specific topic that bears further study, as Gros’s entire article advocates greater examination of video gaming’s applications to education. But the case studies of The Sims and Age of Empires II both certainly merit further scrutiny, to determine precisely what elements make them so effective to each gender, and whether those elements can — or should — be integrated into a single education formula of games. I can just see it now: girls learning by conquering the next-door neighbors with brownies as the boys conquer the next-door city-state with the phalanx formation.

[On a somewhat related topic, there is an interesting short documentary on the integration of technology with college education over on the YouTubes. There’s also another, yet again tangentially-related but well-made and interesting, documentary about the state of college in general.]

Categories: College
  1. Marie
    November 1, 2007 at 8:47 am

    Thank you for sharing that with us. You amaze me with your insight and writing style.


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