Video Games in Education (In A Nutshell)

This “one-pager” is slightly different than the ones that have come before. This one will include very few, if any, references to constructivist theorists in the final (longer) version. There will, however, be references to educational technologists and (especially) video game scholars. In addition, much of it will be supported with specific examples.

This is actually based on several slides from my presentation/workshop overview of video games in education, so it came together relatively quickly.

I’ll post the final (longer and well supported) version when it is ready. In the meantime, is there anything I’m missing or misrepresenting here?

Video games and computer simulations have been used in education since their appearance nearly three decades ago. I recent years, however, new and powerful ways of using video games and simulations in the classroom have become available, and pioneering educators are innovating new ways to incorporate these technologies.
Many of the video games in use in schools are merely edutainment, games meant first to entertain and second to educate. Often such games are the worst of both worlds – neither entertaining nor particularly educational. Edutainment games also often fall back on traditional educational strategies such as repetitive drill-and-skill activities that are only more engaging or motivating than a worksheet or quiz because of their multi-media and interactive nature.

Many web-based games are mere edutainment, but others are both entertaining and truly educational. Web-based games have the benefit of playing right in a web browser, meaning nothing needs to be installed on a school computer and little or no technical support is necessary. Such games are generally free. Many are engaging and content related. Web-based games tend to be ideal for younger students, but some games are beginning to appear for older students, particularly serious games for change. (See below for more on serious games and games for change.)

Of course, in addition to web-based games, educators can provide desktop games (or consol games) for students to play in the classroom (or at home). Although teachers may not have the resources to develop cutting edge video games and simulations, many existing commercial off the shelf (COTS) games meant primarily for entertainment can be repurposed for educational use. Many of the most popular and successful games are not violent or overly sexualized – and many address topics of educational value. Such games can serve as an engaging gateway to further learning.

A single COTS game, such as Civilization III, for instance, can provide students the opportunity to practice strategy, develop systems thinking concepts, learn social and studies concepts. Civilization III also has the educationally beneficial properties of complexity, flexibility, and replayability. More importantly, the game is very simulation-like and encourages student choice, experimentation, and learning through failure. Of course, individual students will learn different things playing such a game, and the teacher plays an important role in mediating student understanding. Also, such a game will not be engaging and motivating for all students. Not all games will appeal to all students, not even all gamers. Research has also shown that video games may not be an effective learning tool for non-gamers.

If a COTS game is not available that meets a particular educational need, teachers (or their students) can modify (or mod) existing games. Many existing games come with toolsets that allow modification of game environments and in some cases game rules. Explicitly educational games can thus be custom built for a particular purpose.
Increasingly, though, explicitly educational commercial games are becoming available. In contrast to earlier edutainment games, these games are meant to be educational first, and entertaining second. In many cases they have been successful in capturing the best of both worlds. They are both powerfully educational and genuinely entertaining.

Many such games are considered serious games, or games created for a purpose other than entertainment. These are games meant to educate, train, or inform. Examples exist in education, government, health, first response, science, and – of course – the military. A particular brand of serious game, games for change, includes games created with the goal of effecting positive social change. Another subset of serious games is games for health, which are being created by researchers, medical professionals, and game developers for health care applications. The developers aim to use game technologies to create new ways of improving the management, quality, and provision of healthcare worldwide.

If a COTS game or explicitly educational game does not exist to meet a particular educational need, and a COTS game cannot be modified to meet the need, a new game can be created from scratch. Ideally, students can design the new game, even if the game is never produced. In the same way that teaching a subject is one of the best ways to learn it, designing a game or simulation about a subject is another great way to gain a deeper understanding of a subject. Some school programs, and after school programs, already exist for the purpose of helping students create their own games. Although most game design tools are prohibitively technical for many teachers or students to use without significant technical learning, newer easier tools are consistently being developed and put to use. Regardless, students and teachers can use common tools such as spreadsheets to design the simulations that will drive the game, and they can illustrate screen shots or storyboard important game sequences. This still exercises the design skills necessary to create a game, and it requires an in-depth working knowledge of the subject being simulated in the game.

Though they are largely unavailable for educational use at the present time, massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) hold a great deal of potential to serve as constructivist learning environments. More research is required in this area to determine the potential applications, benefits, and problems related to the use of MMORPGs in education.