Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Challenges of Implementing Gaming in the Classroom

There are plenty of formidable obstacles that educators and game developers must overcome before video games can be a viable teaching tool in traditional classrooms.

1. Most video games require skill.

You can tell this kid's got the skillz!
With a textbook, novel or handout, teachers can assign chapters for their students to read. Each student is given the same amount of reading, and baring any sort of disabilities, everyone has the same “chance” of completing the assignment. But with a video game, in which progress is skill-based, there’s no guarantee a student will be able to finish the assignment. Also, unlike a book, one can’t just skip to the next chapter if they haven’t done their homework the previous night. If the player cannot complete a task in a game, there is often no way to continue. Making the game easier is one way to even the odds, but that often deadens the impact and would rob the students of the full gaming experience.

A creative teacher might find a way around this by asking his or her students to poke around with no specific goals other than sampling the atmosphere of the game. Some games, like Myst, can be played for hours in a very satisfying way without advancing the plot.

2. No two players will have the same experience.

If everyone reading this blog decided to play through the same video game – even a more linear one like the first Super Mario Bros. – we would all have different experiences. A longtime player might finish the game in about ten minutes (warp to world 4-1 at the end of 1-2, warp to world 8-1 at the beginning of 4-2, then finish the game as normal). A first time player might spend hours falling down pits and cursing Nintendo, and without skipping levels, eventually finish the game by the skin of their teeth. Others still might decide to collect every coin they see and never make it past the first few stages.

Compare this to reading a novel or a textbook. There’s a definite beginning and end to printed material, defined by how many words and pages are in between Point A and Point B. While the reader can (and should) bring his or her experiences to the material, everyone who reads the assigned text will have been exposed to exactly the same content.

Obviously, divergent experiences might lead to some difficulties in uniform teaching. However, this situation could lead to a creative discussion or assignment where everyone’s experiences are melded into one main idea or project.

3. It’s a lot easier to read a boring textbook than it is to play through a boring game.

What was the worst book you had to read in high school? Was it a chore to finish? Did it hurt your head? Now imagine reading that book six times in a row. It doesn’t sound appealing, does it?

I hate you AND The Jungle, Upton Sinclair!

Some video games last for 100 hours or more, where as a textbook or novel will likely take much less time to complete. Anyone who’s ever dropped $50 on a bad video game may have found themselves slogging though it on principle, but that was by their own choice. Assigning a gaming experience that the student finds tedious might actually do more to push them away from education than assigning a dull textbook.

4. Games are expensive and require specific consoles to function.

Imagine that, as an English teacher, I ask my students to play up to the Returners’ Hideout in Final Fantasy VI. The school would have to provide each student with Playstation, a memory card, a controller and a copy of the game. Assuming the school is paying list price for the equipment, that’s approximately $85 per student without tax ($50 for a PS1, $15 for a memory card and $20 for the greatest hits version of the game). If I’m teaching 120 students, that comes out to be $10,200.

Hey, he's pretty good!
This scenario is for old hardware and an old game. If I wanted my students to experience a newer game like Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patroits on the PlayStation 3 platform, the price jumps to $39,600: $300 for a PS3 with 80 gig hard drive and $30 for the game. And unlike textbooks (especially those in the English language arts), gaming equipment can’t be used for very many years in a row; just look at what happened to EVERYONE'S Xbox 360s.

Clearly, there would need to be a different distribution method if gaming in the classroom is to be a viable option. Digital distribution is by far the cheapest, and a license for use by 100 or more students could likely be obtained for a fraction of the cost of hard copies.

Great for lit crit!
Conclusion: Though the educational potential of the video game medium is great, as gaming exists today, there are too many difficulties putting it to use in mainstream classrooms. My recommendation at this point is for teachers is to use gaming to enhance their lessons, just as they might use allusions to films or books to cement concepts in their student’s minds. For example, one might compare the events of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to those in the Silent Hill series. In both, it’s never clear if the protagonist is hallucinating or if the supernatural events seen through their eyes are truly happening. Students familiar with Silent Hill will gain a deeper understanding of The Turn of the Screw, and those who aren’t won't lose anything. Similarly, a social studies teacher might suggest to his or her class that they spend some time with the History Channel video game Civil War: A Nation Divided. While it’s a fictional account of real events, the game can help illustrate the look and feel of the period and help bring history to life in the minds of our students.

For the younger crowd, video games can be used to enhance reading skills. Many role playing games like Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and even the accursed Pokémon are text-heavy and provide wonderful motivation to improve the player’s reading ability.

Finally, remember that all knowledge is power. Think back to a time in your life when you solved a problem with something you learned from a game show, a film, or a novel. Consider that a student of yours might find themselves in the same situation, using knowledge from a video game to aid them.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Value of Gaming in Education

When you think of video games, what comes to mind? Tiny spaceships shooting down invaders from beyond? Bleeps and bloops? High scores?

Space Invaders, early 1980s
Times have changed. Game soundtracks are now orchestrated, the visuals are on par with anything one might see in a computer animated Hollywood film, and the storylines go far beyond shooting down aliens or saving the princess. Games are no longer relegated to the back of pizzerias and instead are found in homes worldwide. Just like the internet, children born after the year 2000 are growing up with interactive entertainment at their fingertips.

So if gaming is wide spread and accessible, and our students are compelled to complete Halo and Modern Warfare more than their homework, why, aside from a few uninspiring “edutainment” titles, haven’t we acknowledged the educational potential of this fledgling medium?

I am convinced that video games are one of many new texts of the younger generations, going hand-in-hand with web pages, blogs and other forms of digital media. If teachers do not embrace this and other forms of neo-literacy, I fear we will be left in the Stone Age of education, hardly able to reach our students.

Now you might be thinking: “Okay, so what can a student learn from a video game, aside from how to throw fireballs and blow things up?”

According to educational theorist James Paul Gee in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, video games can aid in developing problem solving skills. In a speech at Vassar Collage on April 2, 2009, Gee used the game Portal as an example, saying that players must find unorthodox ways of getting their character from Point A to Point B. Those skills, he said, can be transferred to real life situations. Instead of moving a character in a video game, Portal players may one day use similar logic to move a building or find a new way to transport a large group of people.

From the game Portal, by Valve

Gee also said is that for learning to take place, one must be emotionally involved with the material. Video games fit the bill better than any other form of media available. Combining education and gaming would be an excellent way to provide an emotional component to what we must teach students. Gee used Sid Meier’s Civilization as an example: One might not feel much of a connection to an event like Custer’s Last Stand, but if one were to try to come up with ways to change the outcome of the event, he or she might feel much more “in tune” with it.

There are other applications as well. As technology improves, so to do the number of high-quality video game narratives that utilize foreshadowing, irony, metaphor and more – all the things that English Language Arts students must know to succeed – in ways equal to much of the cannon literature of the curriculum. For example, the games Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams and Rule of Rose rival pieces like The Yellow Wallpaper and The Bell Jar in terms of delving into the psychology of a fragile mind; Braid and Earthbound pack as poignant and metaphorical punch as Animal Farm; and the Metal Gear Solid series, in ways just as memorable as any war novel I’ve ever read, makes real the horrors of battle and the effect on the individual, while also calling into question what it means to be a hero.

One of Braid's many puzzles

It will be a long, tough road to convince the masses that gaming has more value than just mindless entertainment. However, that day can and must come, lest our tech-hungry students become bogged down in the quagmire of educational malaise and our teachers fight an unwinnable battle.