Monday, August 04, 2003

Why Video Games Won't Thrive in Mainstream Education

Why Most Educators Won't ...Turn to Games for Help
I wonder how many articles like this have popped up since Atari exploded in the early '80s? Every few months, some eager reporter (or teacher) sees how cool and engaging the latest video games are, and asks "why aren't these things being used in school? Imagine how motivated kids would be!" Then maybe they do a bit of digging and find that, sure enough, a few very creative teachers are finding ways to integrate parts of the cool games into their teaching. But further digging reveals that many more don't want anything to do with them, or are spending their materials budgets on awful edutainment software titles that are nothing more than jazzed up textbooks, with specific sequences and few choices. The key issue revolves around control. Elearningpost pulled out the best quote in the article:
"People will object to games that have a variety of choices because they can't limit the choices their children make," Gee said. "However, if you remove that type of ambiguity, you've removed any sense of morality from the game because there are no consequences to bad decisions."
Traditional education is all about control -- controlling what kids learn, when they learn it, and in most cases, how they learn it. Not that the approach is all bad, but good games tend to be more like punk rock -- they thrive partly because they chafe against all forms of control. They're irreverent, funny, loud, free-form, visually intense, and you find out about the effects of your choices in real time. As soon as the "game" is designed to align with curriculum standards, the odds of the game being engaging drop to almost zero.

George also linked the Wired article, and asked whether students actually learn more through games: "I know the they are more engaged and it's easy to assume that they learn more...but it's not conclusive." I suspect the answer is that they definitely learn more, and the learning may last longer, but they're probably not learning the specific points that the curriculum demands. Your educational philosophy will determine whether you think that's ok or not.

Let's assume that a Grade 5 teacher is abandoning his old textbook-and-lecture unit on cities, and replacing it with a unit using SimCity. It's hypothetical and generalized, of course, but the original unit probably exposes kids to information about suburbs and downtowns, civic government, and maybe some basic economic systems, using reading, questions, and probably some class discussion. Kids are unlikely to remember very little of it two weeks after the test. Using the SimCity unit may cover a few of those curricular items incidentally, but they're certainly not the focus. Some of the activities in this unit:
  • construct and manage your own city using Sim City 2000
  • write a history of your own Sim City
  • design your own skyscraper and build it
  • add your skyscraper to the city being created by your classmates
Through these activities, they may never learn the definition of gentrification, but they're going to learn all sorts of interesting stuff about causes and effects in cities and they're probably more likely to understand and apply what they've learned. They're likely to collaborate, learn about solving problems and figure out why design is difficult and important. So far so good, right?

This is where it gets tricky. Some of what they learn won't be historically or statistically accurate (it is a game after all), which will make many social studies teachers nervous. If there's a standardized test in the subject, the learning is unlikely to align very well with what students will be asked on the test. The teacher is also going to have a hard time convincing administrators fund the purchase of multiple licenses, since it would be too expensive to pay out of the teacher's personal materials budget. Getting the software installed on all the machines and booking enough time in the computer lab will probably be a nightmare. The time-strapped teacher must also learn the game himself, develop supporting materials and lessons, and risks looking stupid if it doesn't work out. With these barriers, only the most determined teacher would forge ahead and try to implement the unit. And this is a simulation game, which is usually considered the most educational flavour in the gaming world.

George also asked if there were any studies measuring the effectiveness of learning with video games. I ran across this one, which is not very encouraging: No Magic Bullet: 3D Video Games in Education. A revealing quote from the summary: "...we can say that creating a motivating 3D game that meaningfully enhances learning is a difficult task." There's an understatement...

Just so it doesn't seem totally hopeless, I did get really excited reading this article last year: 3D GAME SOFTWARE AND ARCHITECTURAL EDUCATION. It's different than the usual story of integrating a popular game in the classroom, then trying to justify its educational value. In this case, educators used free software (Worldcraft) designed for editing and creating 3D-gaming environments to help architecture students prototype and view buildings in 3D. Instead of having to purchase and learn complex, expensive CAD drawing tools, students had a simple, game-like interface to create their masterpieces. When they were done, they could run through the buildings with groups of classmates or instructors. Very cool -- maybe there's still hope.

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