Jul 22, 2010 by Sherrelle Walker, M.A.

Playing Video Games for Learning

Being in the business of e-learning, I am fascinated by video games. No, I’m not a big player myself, but they amaze me for what they can do in terms of teaching and learning. While their primary goal may be to entertain, the core of what they do is perform a continuous process of teaching, simulated practice and assessment, all while engaging learners in learning from worlds rich with content and experience.

As teachers, we’ve always looked to various types of non-interactive content to engage and instruct students. Prior to the 20th century, we depended upon print. In the 1970’s, I remember cassette tapes and film strips coming into the classroom. In the 1980’s, it was video cassettes. Now, we show DVD’s and online video.

Today our digital native students are looking for the kind of interactivity that they experience in their lives outside of school—and that includes the video games that they play. But what skills and experiences can students gain through interactive gaming environments?

  • Learning to try. According to James Gee of Arizona State University, the essence of gaming is that, by its nature, it integrates learning with embedded assessment. With textbooks and lectures, a learner gains knowledge by reading and hearing about subjects. In simulated environments, learners experience situations and content first-hand. They attempt solutions, experience failures and learn from mistakes to proceed to higher levels. They are rewarded for pushing the envelope.
  • Thinking about the big picture. In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink discusses six different senses essential for success in our age, one of which is "symphonic thinking," or the ability to see the big picture of situations, manipulate multiple variables and add invention to solve problems. In today’s rich and detailed game environments, players must successfully learn to do exactly that to achieve the goals of the simulation.
  • Collaborating and cooperating. With the introduction of online video games, successful achievement of objectives requires communication and collaboration amongst multiple players. In today’s world, these are clearly skills that one needs to achieve success.

While the so-called edutainment market is small, educators and entrepreneurs alike are in the process of bringing the true educational value of computer games into the classroom.

Is the shift going to be rocky? Absolutely. As an example, look at the debate around a "historical action" game called Six Days in Fallujahand the mainstream discussion that has taken place on NPRand in Newsweek. Will this genre of game become a new form of documentary? If contextualized appropriately by a teacher, can this breed of games represent a serious way for students to experience the civics, political science or world history first-hand? After considering that, check out Games for Change, an example of a new breed of online games for teaching and learning a wide variety of topics with significant human impact. This is a challenging and productive debate, one that will take the marriage between computer games and the instruction of content and skills to the next level.

Edutopiarecommends many resources for further exploration of the value of computer games in education, including:

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