From Pong to Interactive Education

After a stint into the adult world of college academics, Colin Cronin returns to his childhood roots as an avid video game fan for a look at how virtual worlds can teach the real world.

Growing up, it always seemed to me that videogames had a rather notorious reputation in mainstream news. It was not difficult to find anecdotal and scientific research arguing that videogames increased aggression among teenagers by exposing them to graphic violence; Grand Theft Auto has always been a favorite target of outraged mothers and pacifists. Older console-based role-playing games (RPGs) tended to be single-player, so they were accused of making kids more anti-social. After all, wow many hours did you spend alone in a dark room trying to beat every Final Fantasy installment?

However, it is misleading to think that these negative effects are either inevitable or inherent. Since there is no evidence (and no real argument) that videogames produce only negative behavior, it is worth looking at how they can lead to positive behavior.

There has long been some recognition that simulation and adventure games — such as SimCity and RollerCoaster Tycoon — help to develop strategic thinking and planning skills. Spore has the educational potential of teaching players about evolution and biology since the game involves the development of a microscopic organism into a full-fledged species. These are examples of nonlinear gameplay, where players are confronted with a set of challenges that can lead to a range of different outcomes. Whereas your traditional side-scrolling beat ‘em-up will have the standard series of levels and bosses, open-ended games adapt and change based on the actions taken by the player.

Though they are called “games,” there is nothing inherently illegitimate about using videogames as tools of instruction. What tends to be controversial is the content of games. Obviously, you would not want your kids learning about blowing heads off and mugging people at school. Nor would you want their life consumed by a fantasy story where the player was a sorcerer searching for the ultimate magic. But if educational material – such as historical facts, philosophical and religious symbolism, ethical questions, and exposure to various artistic styles – is built into videogames, then how different is it from reading a book? Many RPGs contain a considerable number of references to various mythologies and folklore. The Playstation game Xenogears and its later generation offshoot series Xenosaga are rife with various Christian and Judaic allusions, as well as citations of Freudian and Jungian psychology.

But unlike reading a book, games place the player inside a constructed world and give him or her control over this world through a virtual avatar. While games may range widely in how realistic they are, they can still provide opportunities for developing critical faculties. In 2002, a UK study found that working as a team was the most commonly reported skill developed for ages 7-14 through playing games. Such simulations allow students to exercise skills in negotiation, planning, strategic thinking, and decision-making. In Key Stage 4 students (typically ages 14-16), decision-making was the most commonly reported skill developed by games.

The authors of a joint paper between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory argue that videogames are a part of the future of learning because they allow players to participate in simulated worlds that embody social practices and values. videogames offer a glance into how we might use new social and cultural worlds to create more innovative methods for teaching in schools, communities, and the workplace. For example, the law of gravity can be understood not only through an equation but also through virtually interacting with planets that have larger or smaller masses than the Earth.

A particularly important aspect of videogames is the development of situated learning – understanding complex concepts through multiple contexts and retaining the connection between abstract ideas and concrete applications. Thus in Full Spectrum Warrior, players learn how communicate with military squads, build the capacity for teamwork, and grasp at least a working definition of the military tactic of “fire and movement.” Just as in the real world, people build meanings within learning environments. In other words, context is crucial to understanding. In Full Spectrum Warrior, concepts like suppression fire and tactical networking are conveyed to the player within specific contexts. The power of virtual worlds in shaping (and reshaping) the mind is significant enough that this game has even been adapted to help veterans of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Videogames are neither perfect nor a cure-all; like all modes of instruction there are trade-offs and drawbacks. Games provide a more flexible and accessible method of teaching and learning, but they can also draw people too far into the simulated world and make it difficult for players to retain connections between the principles of the game and the real world. Moreover, it is undeniable that many games exist with little substantial educational value. But this is true of books as well (think of all those trashy romance and thriller novels). It is not the medium of games but the content that they embody which powerfully influences behavior. Of course there are unique aspects of videogames that must be handled, but this is no reason to deny them their place in the world of education.

Videogames should not be seen as a replacement but rather a supplement to traditional forms of learning. During Washington State’s legislative session this year, Representative Reuven Carlyle (D-36th) pushed through a bill regarding online learning technology in higher education. One of Carlyle’s goals was to enhance traditional classroom learning with the tools offered by modern technology. In one meeting I asked him what he thought about the dangers of below-average instructors falling on technology as a crux. He essentially replied that bad teaching is bad teaching, regardless of how it is happening. Technology – and videogames – can have positive and negative effects on education. They are not a substitute for reading and writing; they are certainly not a substitute for good teaching. They are tools to be used in conjunction with all of these.

Back in January, Virtual Worlds Management released its updated list of over 200 youth-oriented virtual worlds that were live, planned, or in active development. This was a substantial increase from around 150 known virtual worlds in August 2008. The impact of technology on young students today is undeniable. The question now is whether or not we are going to change with the times or refuse to adapt by disguising elitism as tradition.

Colin Cronin originally contemplated a career as a concert pianist and studied Music Performance at the University of Puget Sound. Realizing his heart belonged not to the stage but rather to student debt, Colin returned for a fifth year and acquired an only slightly more relevant major in Politics & Government. You can experience more of such brilliance at his blog, Tabris' Corner.