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by Chris Walden
MEng Computer Games Design
Serious gaming already has many applications in the educative field, yet after thirty years of usage, they have yet to feature prominently by helping in the classroom. When today's youth is frequently dubbed the 'video game generation' due to how widespread gaming has become, why have they yet to have been included in the teaching curriculum? There are many obstacles to overcome, but there is a great amount of potential in harnessing video games to aid teaching in the classroom.
Serious gaming can be regarded as a "medium of education" (Rodriguez, 2006), being used to "support teaching and learning" (Kirriemuir, 2002) in an area that already grasps the attentions and lives of many adolescents (Griffiths, 2002). They have become "an important part of people's lives" (Bruckman & Zagal, 2008) in what can be considered the 'video game generation' (Barab et al, 2005). However, even though a staggering 59% of Great British citizens actively use video games (Pratchett, 2005), why is it that they do not have a more pivotal role in modern educational studies? The general consensus is that the media and public are fixated on the 'violence' in video games (Barab et al, 2005, Gee, 2007, Griffiths, 2002, Gunter, 1998), this being the primary reason for which their educational properties and/or potential is dismissed. Using games for educative purposes is far from a recent proposition either, with evidence that the Chinese were doing so as early as 3000 BC (Gibson et al, 2007). However, it is only in the last sixty years that digital games have been available to even consider for educative purposes, but the lack of their application is clear. Is this because of the aforementioned public opinion, or is it simply because they are impractical for use in a learning environment?
The key issue to overcome when allowing video games to have a larger role in education is the reputation they have gained. A lot of the exposure video games receive in the mainstream media comes from controversial games, rather than their successes, leaving many people concerned over potential violence issues (Sanger et al, 1997). It is not just the media that has expressed concern, however, as "teachers, politicians, journalists and psychologists" (Sanger et al, 1997) have spoken their minds on the connection between violence and video games. Research carried out by Provenzo (1991) even stated that "children playing on such games may be conditioned into racist and sexist attitudes", further bringing their appropriateness in the classroom into question. The problem with this research is that most of it is inconclusive. Statements such as "there may be a link between video game use and deviant social behaviour" (Barab et al, 2005) and they may "induce aggressive behaviour in children" (Provenzo, 1991) are often taken as factual evidence when reported on in the popular media. Research into uncovering the truth and/or debunking common concerns with video games will be an important and necessary step into seeing further introduction of video games in education, as to truly utilise them as learning tools, it is inevitable that they will need to begin mimicking particular areas of existing popular games in order to maximise their own effectiveness (Sanger et al, 1997). However, it is not only concern about excessive exposure to violence that hinders the progression of video games being used in the field of education. Many still consider playing video games to be "a clear waste of time" (McGonigal, 2012), a view that has plagued the industry for decades (Creasey & Myers, 1986, McGonigal, 2012). Regardless of the beneficial properties of using them in the classroom, would the parents, or even the education boards, back such a change? Creasey and Myers (1986) claim that they do not have adverse effects on homework or grades, and there is more research to support this (Griffiths, 2002, Barab et al, 2005). This is not to say that any game is suitable for the classroom, however. For example, a game with a historical background such as Age of Empires III (Ensemble Studios, 2005) has the potential to become a teaching tool in history classes, were as games like Call of Duty 3 (Treyarch, 2006), while being set during the Normandy breakout of World War 2, is less suitable due to what the actions the player is performing and the way information is conveyed. In Age of Empires III, the player follows what is essentially a simulation of past events, while Call of Duty 3 is tailored to be entertaining, rather than attempting to be directly educative. Regardless of the suitability of the game at hand, it will need to be rigorously tested before being accepted into the classroom (Kee & Rockwell, 2011). While the potential exists for video games to be used in this manner, it is important to gauge whether or not doing so is the correct decision. There are many individuals that hold the opinion that video games should not even enter the classroom, as "that's where things have to be serious and the place of games in not a place of seriousness" (Kee & Rockwell, 2011), so it is critically important that the games are thoroughly examined, or designed to a high educational standard, both to maximise effectiveness, as well as to prove that they do in fact have a place in the classroom. The use of serious games in the educational arena is an exciting one, but as
Griffiths (2002) mentions, "care should be taken that enthusiastic use of this technique does not displace other more effective techniques". It is worth considering that appealing to students with video game-based learning would be best executed with the games they are in fact already playing (Griffiths, 2002, Bruckman & Zagal, 2008). One of the biggest draws of using video games as a learning medium is to grasp and hold the attention of those playing them (Kee & Rockwell, 2011, Griffiths, 2002), so by using old and/or outdated games would be counterproductive in most situations. First-person shooters such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Infinity Ward, 2011) and Battlefield 3 (EA Digitial Illusions CE, 2011) are incredibly popular with young adults, though their educational properties are overshadowed by the gameplay. They are very much intended for entertainment over learning, so they are largely unsuitable for classroom teaching. However, games such as R.U.S.E. (Eugen Systems, 2010) and Total War: Shogun 2 (The Creative Assembly, 2011), which both feature combat mechanics in different wars and time periods, offer plenty of learning opportunity for historical studies in the way of scenarios, descriptions and dialogue. But what about the core subjects, like mathematics, science and English? There are certainly games that help teach these subjects, but these are usually created specifically as games for learning, rather than entertainment. However, there has been a growing interest in 'edutainment', an area of games that specifically aims to educate, while keeping the entertainment value of regular games (Kee & Rockwell, 2011, Rodriguez, 2006, Gibson et al, 2007). Video games are already used as educational tools in many respects, such as to help teach languages (Kirriemuir, 2002), train personnel in areas that would otherwise be dangerous (Kee & Rockwell, 2011) and even to improve reaction times and hand-eye coordination (Griffiths, 2002). The teaching potential for video games is certainly apparent, but will 'edutainment' advance enough to make it to the classroom? These games would have to be tailored to particular subjects, scenarios and modules, rather than being created with entertainment and experience as the most important areas of design. Rodriguez (2006) suggests that designers must look directly at the ludic features in these subjects, so they may "exploit and highlight" them in gameplay. However, while this creates a platform for the game to build upon, there is more that needs to be considered to ensure it holds the interest of students. Griffiths (2002) claims that it is "curiosity, fun and the nature of the challenge" that are the key areas to making such a game, even claiming that it would be "easier to achieve and maintain a person's undivided attention" than regular teaching. To successfully create a game that hits all of the targets that 'edutainment' games need to hit, both the teachers and the designers need to work together to capture the best of both areas (Kee & Rockwell, 2011). Perhaps the biggest hurdle in seeing more video games used in education is student motivation. It is necessary that games created for 'edutainment' blend education and entertainment well, but if the students themselves do not want to play the resulting game, then their benefits are immediately lost. Existing games with educational properties such as the aforementioned Age of Empires III (Ensemble Studios, 2005) have the benefit of already existing in the same market that 'edutainment' is trying to tap into, which is generally more
appealing for students to want to play. Games that are currently being used in the classroom that focus entirely on education, such as many of the games created by The Learning Company, are far less likely to be played casually by the same students. According to Rodriguez (2006), game designers should begin by "treating the learning process as an exploratory arena", thus allowing them to "explore and extend the medium of play". Griffiths (2002) claims that it is paramount that "the objective of the game is clear", and both teachers and game designers should "have a known goal in mind for the players of the game". This is the focus that the game must have in order to work effectively, as well as to ensure that they are worth utilising. There are many benefits to this approach as it provides "immediate feedback" (Griffiths, 2002), allowing teachers to intervene and teach alongside the game. This holds a unique advantage over regular classroom teaching in many respects, such as how students tend to have "difficulties articulating their experiences and observations" (Bruckman & Zagal, 2008). Where these students would avoid speaking up in class and risk falling behind, a video game could let the teacher know exactly how the learning is going. It can also be a benefit to "build in competition" (Griffiths, 2002), due to the natural drive for self-improvement when pitted against others. Of course, teachers and developers must be warned about this aspect, as systems such as ranking could demotivate those that are showcased as weaker than the other students. With all these points to consider, is it even worth the time and effort to introduce games into classrooms in the first place? As Barab et al (2005) put it, "educational video games are the only way that educators can adequately engage the 'video game generation'". Playing video games can be considered "virtually ubiquitous" (Bruckman & Zagal, 2008) amongst children and young adults, and it is already "affecting the way we socialize and communicate". When they feature so prominently in the lives of so many students, it would clearly be a huge oversight should they not be examined extensively for their appropriateness in education. Another problem to face is the common view that educational video games are not needed, especially when students are already being taught in a way most people can understand (Provenzo, 1991). However, it is a fact that some serious video games are absolutely necessary. As Kee and Rockwell (2011) state, "imagine trying to learn something as complex as flying from a book or a lecture". Yes, it is indeed possible to learn how to fly via a book or a lecture, but it makes no sense to use these options when serious games make it easier, while also providing a realistic simulation. Though it is easy to see the potential benefits of using simulations to learn how to pilot an aircraft, it is less apparent to see the use of video games to teach vocational subjects. As Griffiths (2002) claims, when using games as a teaching tool for students, "it becomes very clear that they prefer this type of approach to learning". Video games most certainly can be used appropriately and effectively in education, but it is important to note that this is as an aid, not a replacement. When video games "can clearly consume the attention of children and adolescents" (Griffiths, 2002), why are they not being used to help teach difficult topics? In fact, Kirriemuir (2002) states that mathematics is "a subject where the use of games was usually superior to traditional classroom instruction".
With widespread access to the Internet, it could be possible to issue homework in the form of revision-based video games, which would appeal more to the 'video game generation' than its paper-based alternative. After all, the entire premise of using video games as a learning resource is to "trick a generation of youth who play games for fun into learning subjects they otherwise find tedious" (Kee & Rockwell, 2011).
With at least thirty years of video games being used sparingly in the classroom (Kee & Rockwell, 2011), it seems about time to harness their capabilities in tailoring a new era of education for the 'video game generation'. A bad image caused by years of negative press and opinion has stifled the growth of an area that has yet to be fully explored, with many scared or put off enough to avoid the necessary testing. With video games as widespread as they are, it is about time for teachers to look towards them for new methods of passing on knowledge. Specifically tailored educational video games could in fact be the bridge that grasps a student's interest in a subject, giving them the much needed motivation to actively seek further learning, to pay attention in class, and to complete homework voluntarily. There are many existing educational video games, however it is important to note that these are, for the most part, created purely for educational reasons and not recreational reasons. To overcome this situation, while also providing more incentive for students to pay attention and enjoy the resulting games, teachers and game designers must work together in creating games that utilise the best of both worlds. Most students already play video games to some extent, so they will always be comparing and contrasting, subconsciously or otherwise. Being able to find the game fun is the key to success, with light competition also providing reasons to play, as well as improve. Video games will never take precedent over teacher-based learning for vocational subjects, that much is certain. However, there is plenty of reason to utilise them as educational aids, whether this is to help with revision or to learn a new mathematical term, for example. Using these tools as an extra way to generate interest in a subject could indeed be the difference between a student paying attention in class or not, and all it would take is for the educational side of serious games to move forward as it should have done long ago.
While it would be beneficial for video games to be specifically designed for a classroom environment, there are many existing commercial games that can be used for educative purposes, such as Age of Empires III (Ensemble Studios, 2005). Research into the optimisation of educational video games would benefit from compiling a list of existing games that can be used as effective educational tools. There is also the possibility of finding purely educational games that also fall into this category, if they provide enough of a grasp to keep the attention of students as well. There is also the possibility that a large collection of games analysed this way could be introduced into the classroom while research and development is being made on the games for 'edutainment'. There will always be the issue of video game reputation, so it would also be beneficial to compile extensive research on the benefits of their use in the classroom, to help justify their further introduction. This would not only be for the sake of teachers and education boards, but also for parents who hold concerns over their use.
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