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Video Games in Schools: Technology in the 21st Century
By Andrew Gardner

We all have the vision of a child, glued to the screen, controller in hand, engaging, uninterrupted, with a video game. This scene is sometimes frowned upon by parents and teachers as expendable entertainment. But a growing number of academics, and social critics have come to see it differently. They view the engagement and excitement spawned by videogames as an opportunity to change pedagogical practice, so as to prepare students for the demands of the 21st century. In this article, I present examples of virtual world simulations, “serious” games and game design used in educational settings to develop far more than hand-eye coordination.

Immersive Environments: Sid Meier's “Civilization,” presents a virtual world that can be used in an educational setting. The game has a simple goal: build an effective civilization. A player begins with one person in the wilderness and, after hours of play, can end with multiple cities, infrastructure, wars and scientific discoveries. With guidance from “advisors,” players make choices to develop their civilization's military, science, culture, trade, domestic, and foreign relations. However, players cannot succeed unless they attend to the complex relationships between their decisions, attributes of geography, and access to resources. In emphasizing these relationships, the game addresses many of the social studies standards in government, history, economics and geography. In a history class a student can be asked to choose a historical era in which to develop the civilization, assume the role of world leader, and deal with the pressures and opportunities of that period.

“Civilization” is a long game—it can take over 20 hours to complete. However, the systemic thinking it facilitates is exactly the conceptual understanding that is hard to develop within a traditional classroom setting. What could be more instructive than actively making choices, as a world leader, and learning about the consequences of those choices within a game setting? The framework that students learn can be attributed to other civilizations they study, throwing into relief the details, and the large-scale decisions that yield consequences we live with, today.

Serious games: Also with an eye on illuminating complex systems, the “serious games” movement focuses on demystifying complex corporate and governmental decision-making through game play. For example, Molleindustria developed “The McDonalds Game”. Within a brief compass a player must mow down rainforest to create pastures and cornfields, slaughter cows (while, of course, administering antibiotics), create marketing campaigns, and serve fast food. A time-based game, the player actively (sometimes frantically) engages in the 4 activities at once, illuminating the intricate and troublesome system that underlies the production of every sandwich. “Ayiti: The Cost of Life” is a turn based game developed by Unicef, Global Kids and Gamelab. The game emphasizes the connections between education, wealth, health and happiness. The player must survive for 4 years, 16 seasons, weighing the costs and benefits of sending members of a poor Haitian family to get education, work hard labor or volunteer. Both games provide interesting experiences that can create wonderful entry points into classroom conversation about these complicated themes.

Game design: A more powerful way to learn about systems is through actual design of games. In Gamelab’s currently unreleased “Gamestar Mechanic”, players learn the important attributes of game design through actually “fixing” games that don't work. Entry into “Gamestar Mechanic” requires scaffolded game play in which players learn attributes of games—for example the difference between a turn based game and a time based game, the qualities of “sprites” (the characters within the games), and the importance of a seductive goal that creates desire to play. Ultimately the scaffolded game experience leads the player to a design environment in which he or she can use the newly acquired knowledge to either modify “mod” an existing game, or create a new one.

While designing, students must identify a goal or problem that need to be solved, and then create mechanisms or tools within the game environment to allow the goal to be reached or the problem to be solved. For example, a designer may create a game in which a player needs to get through a maze within a certain amount of time, but cannot see very well. The designer can then embed clues or tools that help a player succeed such as a map that improves orientation, special glasses that improve sight, or a clock that provides extra time. By actually creating the tools to solve problems, students are engaging structurally in the nature of how to work through conflict. Throughout the process, designers receive direct, immediate feedback through testing the game; it either works or it doesn't. Students also test each other's games and share feedback, collaborating and communicating about effective systems, strategies and playability.

In a functional democratic society, citizens must make choices and understand the consequences of those choices.  Playing games helps “exercise” that “choice making” muscle through constant decision making with clear outcomes. Designing games with problems and creating the tools to solve them, requires thinking structurally about rule-based systems and the various ways to navigate them. Since “life is a game,” classroom instruction through play and design of videogames can transfer teaches to real life. Rather than rushing into the real world with no experience making decisions with impact, video games allow students to practice important decision making within a safe space that allows for reflection and thought.

For more information about games mentioned in this article see:

Ayiti: http://tinyurl.com/3c7wrd

McDonalds game: http://tinyurl.com/2mxlxk

Civilization: http://www.civilization.com/

Andrew Gardner is an Apple Distinguished Educator. He is a technology integrator for grades 3-5 at The School at Columbia University.#



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