What video games can teach us about the educational process

Civilization 5 is the latest in the Civilization game series. (Photo by Crowbeak.Sasquatch)

Looking for a new model of education that could eliminate the need for traditional testing while also encouraging problem-solving and guaranteeing that students will be fluent by the time they finish their lessons?

Most kids are already very familiar with this very system—while playing video games. Researcher James Gee recently gave a run-down on the ways video games can be harnessed for educational purposes at a MacArthur Foundation seminar on digital learning in New York City.

Game-design companies do a good job of educating players quickly and thoroughly. They have to, according to Gee. “If [the players] don’t learn it, they return it,” he said.

One way designers accomplish this is by providing needed information “just in time” for the player to use it in the game world. Or they make it available on demand, like the strategy game Civilization, where players can access a “civilopedia” that contains details on the various game concepts, civilizations and units featured in the game.

“In school, information is given to you whether you want it or not and never just in time,” Gee said. “You’re not going to use the 500 pages until you finish them, and by that time you can’t remember what was on the second page.”

Games also allow players to start playing before learning any of the concepts, Gee noted. “Games are based on performance before competence,” he said. One example he cited is a game that allows students to undertake urban planning. The game includes 350 professional codes that students must use.

“School would say, ‘Okay, we’re going to memorize 350 codes and then we get to play the game.’ ”

In the world of video games, by contrast, students are able to dive in right away. “The kid has used them so many times by the end of the game they know all 350 codes,” Gee said. That kind of educational process eliminates the need for traditional testing, according to Gee.

He gave an example of a boy playing the popular science-fiction shooter game Halo on “nightmare” level (the highest difficulty setting). Once the boy beat the game—after 40+ hours of game time—there was no need for testing, he said.

“The test was what he just did,” Gee said.

Many games also offer in-depth statistics and graphics that detail a player’s performance with multiple variables tracked throughout his or her entire playing time. It’s the kind of rich data educators would love to have.

“No school does this,” Gee said.

And there are other surprising ways that video games can promote learning:

  • Gamers regularly become so enamored with a game that they develop “passion communities,” Gee said, in which they study the game in-depth, modifying or expanding it. As an example, Gee pointed to fans of the physics-based game Portal, where some gamers have analyzed the physics of the game in great detail.
  • Gamers can create challenges for one another that create learning opportunities. Gee cited an example focused on the popular life-simulation game The Sims. Players were challenged, in one case, to play the entire game as an impoverished single parent and then create a graphic novel about their experiences. “That sounds like a pretty good social-sciences assignment, right?” Gee said.

Worried about violence in video games? Gee tackled that as well, pointing out that the correlation between television and violence is much stronger than that between video games and violence.

“So if you’re worried about video games, turn off the television first.”

Both video games and television pale in comparison to the written word when it comes to inciting violence, Gee added. “If we took the number of people killed because of a video game … the number of people killed would fit comfortably at two tables. If we took the number of people killed because of how someone read a book, like the Quran or the Bible or The Turner Diaries … we could not fit them in the state [of New York].”

POSTED BY ON April 8, 2011