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The Games Pupils Play

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There comes a time in every parent's life -- and in most teachers' lives, too -- when we discover that those we are raising and teaching are better at certain things than we are.

Case in point: Many years before my son began casually blocking my best basketball shots, I had bought him a handheld Space Invaders digital game, a primordial ancestor of the remarkable video games that exist today. The concept was simple -- flights of alien spaceships descended from the top of the small screen to the bottom, and the job of the threatened Earthling was to destroy them before they completed their flight.

When my son wasn't around, I practiced playing the game, and felt that I was getting pretty good. As I recall, I had moved up to level two, heading eventually (I hoped) for five, the master level. When my son played, however, he quickly leaped up to level four. And he was only seven.

One day, while he was watching me play, he said, "Dad, I think you're missing the patterns."

I was stunned. There were patterns? I had been convinced that the alien ships were launched against me in completely random waves. The kid, however, had figured out the various patterns -- and how to recognize each instantly -- the first few times he played. He was a natural chaos theorist.

My son is now a criminal defense attorney and an expert on eyewitness testimony (which he has written about for, and, frankly, I'm not surprised.

Why am I telling this mildly Oedipal story of domestic domination? Because as up-to-date teachers know and I (neither a teacher nor particularly up-to-date) am discovering, video games are considered by many to be the next big thing in education. A recent article in the Economist describes Katie Salen, a games designer and professor at Parsons The New School for Design, in New York City, who recently opened Quest to Learn, a publicly funded school in that city that will teach entirely through games. (See also this video interview with Salen.)

The article describes how, at Quest to Learn, 90-minute "domains" will replace the familiar blocks of subject study. For instance, Being, Space, and Place will teach English and social studies. "Pupils take on the role of an ancient Spartan who has to assess Athenian strengths and recommend a course of action," the article states. "In doing so, they learn bits of history, geography, and public policy."

Should those pupils ever find themselves in a war with ancient Athens, they will be well prepared. Otherwise, the curriculum seems somewhat underwhelming. Is this the virtual pathway to Arcade High, or an essential approach to reinvigorating the classic chalk-and-talk method that has shaped the classroom dynamic for a couple hundred years?

Of course, the old paradigm has been changing for quite a while now, led not only by technology but also by the growing importance of project learning, both core concepts of The George Lucas Educational Foundation. And creative, interactive video games like the intriguing simulacrums of The Sims, the ingenious gene pools of Spore, and the avatars of Second Life have been around for quite a while.

But let it be noted that Salen, the theorist behind Quest to Learn, is a game designer. She's also a college professor, but -- and I'm guessing here -- I somehow doubt that she's ever stood before a middle school class and taken on the challenge of imparting important knowledge that may be long on difficulty and short on fun.

My guess is that however cool technology becomes, however much of it provides the shape of pedagogic things to come, there will always be teachers standing in front of students -- or sitting with them at screens -- passing on what they have learned to those who need to learn it too. Education is not all games, and teachers will, I hope, never be mere facilitators of tech whose only job is to monitor kids immersed in virtual school.

I'm sure there may be much to be gained by using games, if those games are carefully crafted. After all, many students today are veteran gamers. But who will be making the decisions about which games teach, and which games merely seem to teach?

As psychologists have shown, anything that moves on a screen will capture people's attention, so student involvement is not a trustworthy measure of effectiveness. I'm just speculating here, but any educator over 40 (the Pong generation) probably isn't going to be very good at assessing the value of games for the World of Warcraft generation.

An education system dominated by games may change the balance in classrooms -- power may shift from living teachers to game designers, and from students who are adept at abstract thinking to those better at doing things, even virtual things.

Ideally, a good game curriculum will help the nonmathematical student grapple with numbers and the linguistically challenged to navigate the terra incognita of the subjunctive. But, as I learned from my son long ago, some people are good at games and some aren't, just as some students are natural athletes and some struggle on the playing field.

Will game learning create a new elite group, just when teachers work so hard to get everyone involved and educated?

In Herman Hesse's novel The Glass Bead Game, where a vastly complex cultural game becomes the ultimate measure of superiority, this is pretty much what happens. I've noticed more than a few times that dedicated gamers, with their alpha-dog winning-is-the-only-thing competitiveness, can be a pain to deal with in real-life social and working situations -- the kind of office politicians who would just as soon see others fail as help a project succeed.

Or will the spectrum of educational games allow those of us who don't see the patterns comprehend a rich universe of learning that chalk on the blackboard never showed us?

In other words, can teachers teach game designers how to teach? Please comment on this idea, and others shared in this blog post.

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Comments (22) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

David Pilkington's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I always find it interesting to see my students hurry through their worksheets for the chance to log onto and play "the impossible quiz"- and they'll do this same quiz over and over again to beat their last score.
Granted, the quiz is pretty much made up of nonsense, but maybe we can learn something from the entertaining format.

If this was a Computer Technology test review, I could only imagine what our end of level scores would look like.

r4 cards's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Educational game wiil encourage student's involvement in study
they enjoy their study and get the excitement regarding the study
please suggest me this kind of games for my children

Linda Rorer's picture

Educational games have been around a very long time. I remember playing Oregon Trail when I was in middle school.

While agree some games have educational value and are motivating, I would be cautious about making games the center of our teaching and learning. I worry about the message we would be sending our kids if we tried to make everything "a game". Life is not a game. There are many things we have to do that are not "fun". We have to prepare students for college (or some other form of post-secondary learning), careers, and real situations. It is our responsibility to ensure students can utilize problem solving skills and collaborate in many different situations, and through various methods.

While many games can provide the problem solving and collaboration skills, other avenues should be provided for students to demonstrate their ability in these areas. Also, teachers should ensure that students understand what concepts and skills they will be learning through this game, so they make the connection between the game and learning, instead of merely thinking "it's just a game".

Laura Townsend's picture

I think that playing games is a good idea in helping students to learn or reinforce what they have learned. I do not feel that it should be the sole way of learning. You stated that some students may not be very good at playing games. Plus it does not show them about the real world that is out there. The interaction that comes with students working together is vital to how they interact with others in society after they leave school.

As far as your question "can teachers teach game designers how to teach?" my answer would be I hope so. But not everyone is not ment to be a teacher and it comes down to working with the students. You have to be able to interact with students and love to work with them or you won't be able to build a relationship with a student which is a key component to being a good teacher.

Lauren R's picture

I have so many students that are obsessed with playing video and computer games, but are struggling in my classes. Because of this, I can see a serious advantage in using these types of games in the classroom. As many have stated, it is a good way to appeal to different types of learners.
However, I also see some serious disadvantages to using these too much. While students are learning skills, or seem to be, many games lack the ability to create deep understanding and lasting connections, something that is sometimes already difficult. Also, unfortunately from experience, I know that there are easy ways to skate through activities without actually learning the intended material or meeting the games goal if they are not expertly created. Finally, I also agree with those who have stated that it will continue to give students the false idea that everything in life is fun and needs to be a game. Many students already have too great of a need to be "entertained" in school and show lack of willingness to buckle down and do work when needed. Although these games are great supplements, I think they could be negative if implemented too greatly in the classroom. Nothing can truly replace the human interaction and teachable moments that come from a teacher-student relationship.

Laurie Fish's picture
Laurie Fish
An educator, a mom, a business owner

As a teacher and a mother of three boys. I have transitioned from a complete disregard of video games to a more cautious acceptance. Just recently I found a company ( developing socially relevant video games challenging teens to excercise good decision making in their social and personal lives. The games are full motion and completely interactive and they deal with the tough social issues like character development, team leadership, sexual responsibility - even cell phone and Internet safety. The game unfolds with each choice my son makes - does he forward that text image his friend sent him or recognise it as a form of cyber bullying? He gets to 'play out' and see the consequences of the choices he made. This had a great deal more impact on my teens than any health book (or discussion from mom) covering the same subjects.

At this point I actually seek out video games to support my children's education. If my son has trouble in geometry, I'm the first online googling a captivating game to teach the concepts. Still I seek balance in the way my sons recieve information but I must say, the multi sensory experience seems to elevate their level of understanding on most any subject. The WILL Interactive games allow very real issues to be dealt with in a safe environment.

Mike Games's picture

I like your blog. I believe there is more benefit playing an over-the-board game of chess than playing a virtual game. I'm not aware of any research to confirm my comparison, although there is plenty of research on the benefits provided by chess.

I've never understood why other countries include it within their education system and the US does not. It seems the cost of including chess in school would make it a no-brainer. I must be missing something.

Max Miller's picture
Max Miller
Parent of 2 in Tucson

I also feel that backgammon games can be another great tool to help students learn. Strategy is a major part of this game, as a player needs to anticipate his or her opponent's next move. You really have to think if you want to be good at this game, much like with chess and even the video game described in this article. The other thing is children enjoy these games to the extent that it doesn't even feel like learning. If they're having fun, they won't even realize that they're putting in valuable educational time as well.

Jon's picture

I definitely believe that video games can help students learn, and can definitely play a vital role in the classroom. There have been studies that have shown that video games (mainly the first person shooters) teach hand-eye coordination, and many games require problem solving and quick thinking to beat. Moving blocks to fit a certain pattern, or shooting targets in a specific sequence to solve.

Slightly altered, games like this can easily teach everyday classroom lessons and advance the curriculum. Remove any explicit material from the games to create a classroom-safe plot and a lot of games can be incredibly useful.

At worst, teachers can use the games as incentive for the students to learn the material: get these problems right and they can play the game for a set amount of time. Best case scenario is they use the games to actually help advance the curriculum.

Lisa Linn's picture

While I think you make a few valid points, you are also making some vastly erroneous assumptions. The first one I caught was,"... the avatars of Second Life have been around for quite a while." Right away the statment was suspect in its generality. Second Life, is NOT a game, and any educator involved there would tell you so immediately. It's bad enough that you haven't bothered to explore yourself, but you evidently haven't even spoken to any educator who has! Are you familiar with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)? ISTE has a special interest group for virtual environments that was formed by a group of teachers who met in Second Life. Because ISTE had a powerful presence there and promoted the many rich and varied learning opportunities it provided, the virtual group grew and teachers branched out to other virtual environments, has a regular speaker series and publishes an award winning virtual journal. I also loved your comment about the pong generation, ..." any educator over 40 (the Pong generation) probably isn't going to be very good at assessing the value of games for the World of Warcraft generation." Again, you are very much mistaken. I am from that generation (in my mid-50's) and I play World of Warcraft in a guild comprised solely of educators. I would say that every one of us could more than adequately assess the learning potential contained therein, in fact, that is why we are there. I would suggest you look online for WoW in School, a game based literature elective that parallels the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, created by two guild members and available at both of their schools in two different states. The bottom line is, there is no elite group, nor will there be. The biggest difference that gaming will make in education is to students and to those teachers who are still willing to learn -something many are sadly resistant to doing, although they claim they are "lifelong learners." Learning is hard work but there is no reason that it can't be fun as well. Please do a little better research before you condemn something based on a serious lack of knowledge and understanding

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