To Tack On: Gaming in Education
To add to Joseph’s excellent post below regarding computer games in education, I hava a few thoughts on the idea.
From the teacher’s point of view, computer games seem like a tough sell. For one thing, it’s assumed that educational games are primarily aimed at the K – 6 level –and this is true, due mainly to parents being a huge demographic for this type of software, as well as the relative ease of programming simple concepts in an entertaining manner. The perceived value of a “game” is pretty darn low, as well—at best supplemental to a lesson plan, at worst seen as a waste of the students’ time (and the ensuing negative effect that has on teaching that class). And another downside is this: There just aren’t that many of them, and most are poorly produced, distributed, and supported.
Then I recall an odd little thing: Many people of my generation remember The Oregon Trail, the children’s computer simulation of American pioneer life in the 1800s. It was used in an astounding number of school systems starting around 1978, in nearly any school that adopted the early Apple II and MS-DOS computers. It’s still around today, as a matter of fact, though less for its educational worth and more for nostalgia. It’s pretty funny that I remember more about pioneering life in the 1800s than most other aspects of American history of that time. I also distinctly remember the teacher of that class supplementing The Oregon Trail with relevant questions (“What was the best way to keep meat fresh for the trip?” she asked. After 10 wrong guesses, she said, “You kept it alive until you had to use it.” We felt only slightly cheated at the answer).
The Oregon Trail is arguably the greatest success in educational gaming, ever, and it was first developed in 1971 by some student teachers at a university. It could also be argued that there’s never been a truly successful educational game for students at the post-high school level. I believe this is going to change.
We currently (and recently) live on a campus where every student has a computer, or at least is never farther than a handful of yards from one, has more connections to the internet than there are people to use them all, wireless access to the internet covering nearly the whole area, and possess far more knowledge of computers than any generation before them. We’re ready for educational gaming. We just need someone to make the games.
There are actually a decent number of educational game titles currently used at the university level, such as Real Lives 2010 (a life simulator for growing up in other countries), Democracy (a political simulator), and Miniconomy (a massively multi-player online economics simulator). Some of these are even fun to play, apparently. We also have educational games not used in education (for pretty obvious reasons), developed by large game companies, like The Typing of the Dead, which replaces the light gun/controller for an “on rails” zombie shooting game with a keyboard, and the virtual bullets used to dispatch said zombies with being able to quickly and accurately type words, something I really wish I’d had for my high school typing class. We even have hugely popular games like Assassin’s Creed II, which one would never confuse for an educational game, but which does manage to hide an educational side inside, as your character wanders around a re-creation of late-15th century Italian cities, sees an area, a social class of people, or a building and gets a prompt that, if triggered, opens a screen that tells the player some factual (and interesting!) history of that subject. Games have developed increasingly accurate physics-based puzzles for any number of A-list titles. Officially, projects like net educational profits from very smart people often using existing games.
So despite the common belief that there’s not much available, there’s a good number of educational game titles you could (and would be willing to) use out there right now, for a number of different educational fields, but they can be hard to find. Larger game publishers aren’t there yet, clearly able but not quite willing to pursue development until it becomes popular enough. Even five years ago, you’d probably need one of the larger game publishers to get interested in pursuing educational games (or even useful interactive software outside of language departments) to drive production anywhere near the same way that large book publishers drive production of educational books.
Game companies, however, are facing stiff competition for consumer dollars from independent game companies (employing anywhere from 1 to 20 people), who are developing popular, high quality games, then distributing and charging for them on the cheap. (Markus Persson’s game last year, Minecraft, was making a profit of $250,000 a day at one point—it’s graphically poor, has no real story, and is simply an open world game where you gather resources that enable you to build everything from humble shelters to incredibly complex “machines.” It’s still considered to be in beta. Other small producers are making big-time games that critics use to argue the “video games are art” theory, such as Flower.) All it’s going to take is for a few of these types of people to turn their talents toward education for the market to start striding. It’s never been easier (or even realistically possible) for someone to do this. They just need a push.
So while it remains true that games for education are still relatively hard to find, in small numbers, for only a handful of subjects within a department, we’ve never been closer to a time when education games—proper ones that are not only useful for imparting knowledge and concepts, but entertaining enough in their presentation that the knowledge will be more easily retained—will not only become more prevalent, but actually drive a market. The more willing we are to use what’s currently available, the more likely this is to happen.
Question: What’s the biggest stumbling block preventing educational gaming at the university level from getting traction? Is it the negative associations of the media, the dearth of (well-produced) choice, that most consider it a supplemental novelty, or something else?