McNiven, Andrew. "Video Games in the Classroom"

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[edit] Video Games in the Classroom

by Andrew McNiven

Say what you will about mass market entertainment games like the ones that have been coming out on video game consoles for the past twenty or so years, it is the revolution of the gaming industry and the birth of educational gaming that will be the future of how students understand the world. I am not only speaking about the games which throw math equations in students’ faces, or give them a quiz at the end of a playing session, but the games which inherently expose students to stimulating information and launch them along a path of investigation after they play.

I have been studying games like this for two years now (and naturally playing them for most of my life) and I have discovered that users of these kinds of games often take their educational experiences for granted, not realizing that after hours or even minutes of play, they have absorbed much more than anticipated. So why is this? I can only offer one, simple solution and that is that as a society, or perhaps as developers of our own education system, we have become opposed to gaming as educational tools. We criticize its cost and reliability, worry that it might replace us as teachers, paint all games with the same brush of the “useless-waste of time-making our kids obese” plague on society, or fear the very technology that makes the games work.

As educators however, there is a global awareness of the need to engage our students in our subject material in order for higher levels of learning to occur, maintenance of classroom behavior, and to get students excited about school in general. We already know that relating material to students’ lives works in engaging students and what better way to connect with the growing fields of new media, instant feedback, and video technology than using a vehicle which students are already familiar with and are excited about. It is a similar transition as the introduction of videos over film reels, slideshow presentations over transparencies, and even typed assignments over hand-written. There is a certain comfort zone that educators have with a technology that they have trained with and used with success but I maintain that as teachers in an evolving world, we should be open to adapting to new methods to meet the demands of a new type of student.

[edit] The Project

To put these ideas to work, the lab I have been working out of at Brock University decided to put me in charge of developing a youth camp curriculum in tandem with Youth University (a summer program at the university) that emphasized learning but also engaged a group of students who were especially demanding for entertainment. After all these students were planning on spending a week during their summer vacation with myself and another counselor so I knew I had quite the task ahead of me. The curriculum was developed around a popular PC game created by Sid Meier, Civilizations III, which used a Canadian history mod. For those of you unfamiliar with the game or the term “mod”, here’s a little background. The game places the user in charge of a civilization where they must control everything from expansion, economy, military, culture and scientific development, all while interacting with other civilizations on a world map. In the Canadian “mod” or modification (which alters the way the user sees the information but does not change the basics of gameplay), the user is presented with a map of pre-contact Canada and may control one of several Aboriginal tribes, or the French and English.

Depending on this selection, gameplay is radically different and as the students found out, changes the way one can understand history by seeing things from different perspectives. It is important to note that from the outset, the game follows no true historical path but exists within its appropriate framework. If a student wanted to land the English in Hudson Bay, make the Iroquois have a peaceful relationship with the Huron, trade beaver pelts to the French for gunpowder technology, create an allied aboriginal front to repel the Christian advances by the Europeans, or attempt to explore the rugged interior of Canada for future expansion, they can. The game offers very few limits that prevent the user from altering the course of history (save an aboriginal takeover of Paris and London), but instead infuse actual cultural and technological developments like trapping and lacrosse, aboriginal language specific city names, attitudes and tendencies of computer players who have their own envisions of becoming a great Canadian civilization and so many more interesting yet significant details from our past.

Sound overwhelming? We felt the same way during the development of the camp so in order to space out this intensity, we incorporated a number of tangible activities to speak to the campers who might object to the game, feel as though they needed a break or provide alternative ways of discovering the information, touching on multiple intelligences. These activities included modeling their own native totem, locating their selected native tribe on a real map of Canada, and creating a poster presentation with pictures and researched information. Students also took advantage of taking screen shots of their favourite part of their civilization for display and on the last day, presented all of their information to another camp and demonstrated the game.

[edit] The Reactions

As intense as the camp may sound on paper, the day to day operations went incredibly smoothly with only a few minor bumps due to technical difficulties. As expected, the students had come into the camp both excited that they would be playing video games and hopeful that the program did not consist of too much of that dreaded educational stuff. In fact, when asked at the end of the week, nearly all the students recognized they had learned something about Canadian History and several launched internet browsers during the camp hours to do independent research. I wasn’t shocked when questions arose such as “What happens if I don’t want to trade with the Europeans?”, “Is it better to build farms or keep hunting to supply my cities with food?”, or “Why would I want to switch my government from a tribal council to one that is run by one person?”. The campers understood that history is full of people who had to make choices and based on those choices, different outcomes occurred (something which the game makes very explicit). It also came as no surprise to me that the students wanted to try out nearly every civilization they could in order to find the one with the most advantages. Interestingly, as they soon found out, it wasn’t very easy to engage in military conflict as they found themselves quickly outnumbered by allying sides. In the same respect, campers who chose to develop their cultures and technologies exclusively, neglected the balance needed to achieve a sustainable economy.

The real question is then, what was gained by experiencing these challenges that Civilizations III has set up? Student success in this area was literally all over the map. Some mentioned that they recognized that the Europeans took advantage of many Aboriginals, others emphasized the need for balance of all aspects in society and that emphasizing on one will either make too many enemies or not enough growth, and yet others looked at its potential in classrooms as opposed to the traditional teaching of history. “I think this teaches you how to manage tasks. Also it make(s) history more interesting.” “There is the potential to learn how tribes interact and to learn problem solving.” “It isn’t boring and it is better than reading text books and writing notes.” It was obvious from many of the responses I got from the campers that they appreciated the new perspective into the subject area. The next step then is to see if this material could match it up with actual curriculum and I believe it can to great success.

[edit] The Transition

Today’s history curriculum is overwhelmingly based on connections, relationships, and broad understandings. As teachers we also seek to emphasize history’s relevance in today’s society. What perfect opportunity then to use games and programs such as this one in our schools today as alternative forms of education. What was really interesting from the student feedback during the camp were comments surrounding the transition of these games to not only history classrooms, but multiple subject areas including math, geography, language, and science. The best part is that many games already exist that cover a wide variety of cross-curricular areas and appears to be a market of untapped educational potential. It is up to us as educators to see the potential in these new media tools and embrace the magnetic hold that they have upon young people today.

If you are interested in educational games that can be purchased, downloaded, or played online, look no further than a simple internet search on “serious” or “educational games.” There are literally hundreds if not thousands available and here are some of my favorites.

English / History- Global Conflict – Palestine
Science / Math- The Incredible Machine
Geography / Politics- Prevent Disasters

If you’d like to know more about gaming’s potential use as an educational tool, an excellent source is James Gee, author of What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy as well as several other papers surrounding the subject.

Andrew McNiven is a recent graduate from Brock University’s faculty of education and a native of St. Catharines Ontario. He plans on completing his Masters of Education in educational technology in the near future in pursuits of bringing new media like these games into today’s classrooms.

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