Game On: How Video Games Can Teach

It's hard to believe that just a few decades ago, gaming was the sort of hobby reserved for dark arcades and darker basements. Looking back, the degree to which gaming has become embedded in popular culture is almost staggering. Seemingly overnight, it's become one of the most common - and one of the most widely accepted - pastimes in Western culture. By and large, it seems as though video games have finally been accepted in the world.

Perhaps not as much as one might think. It seems as though every other week, some putz with an agenda pushes out a new study regarding how video games cause violent behavior, how they lower intelligence, how they're terrible for both body and mind. While some of these studies certainly carry merit (that a sedentary lifestyle, for example, is extremely unhealthy), the majority of them serve little purpose aside from demonizing the most popular whipping boy in modern culture.

Not everyone is obsessed with the hobby's perceived weaknesses, however.  There exists a growing camp of educators who are beginning to look at the merit of gaming - the educational value of the pastime. The fact is, people have a greater propensity to remember what they enjoy. They have a greater passion for learning when something they have fun with enters the equation. 

More and more, games - and the philosophies underlying them - are being used to teach. 

Quest Received

Shawn Young teaches physics to high schoolers at a school located in Quebec, Canada.  Ordinarily, such a profession might be rewarding only on occasion. Most people tend to shut down when it comes to any sort of education, and physics, in particular, is one course that many students seem to have a great deal of trouble with. 

I know I never cared for it, myself. 

At a certain point, Young realized his students simply weren't engaging with the material. They weren't paying attention, they weren't learning...they were just trudging along and trying to get through the course. He set out to change this. 

A short while later, a new idea was born, a concept known as World of Classcraft. Owing its roots to a very obvious source, Classcraft takes many of the mechanics and concepts underlying the traditional MMO and translates them into a real-world context. Young divides his class into groups of eight. Within each team; each student chooses one of three roles: Warrior, Priest, or Wizard. These students then receive 'powers' based on their class: for example, writes the BBC, some of the most powerful mages are given access to the spell 'TIme Warp," which allows them to take eight extra minutes to finish an exam.

Students gain powers by gaining experience points, which are in turn gained by good behavior, finishing assignments on time, getting good grades and helping out other students. Each power costs 1,000 XP, with the higher level powers presumably requiring other powers to unlock. 

"The whole game," explained Young, "is based on them being in teams. They get rewards for any kind of collaboration." 

Of course, students also receive penalties, as well. Those who act out in class, get bad grades, or fail their assignments receive hit point damage. Warriors can soak up this damage, essentially 'taking a few hits for the team,' while Priests are capable of healing their damaged comrades.  Should a student's character take enough damage to 'die,' they'll receive a real-world punishment of some sort. 

Young tracks all these changes in daily XP and powers in a game engine he wrote, which he has also designed to generate random events to either help or hinder his students. The game has been so successful that other teachers at Young's school have begun devising similar systems, as well. 

Teaching with Portals

While Young designed his own, real-world game to help him teach his students, Cameron Pittman of Nashville's LEAD academy has gone the other way, writing about how teachers can use actual video games to help their students learn about the physical world - in particular, he points to Portal 2 as an excellent tool for instruction in Physics. 

"I"ve been teaching with video games since I starter; this is my fourth year of teaching," explained Pittman to The News Observer.  "I've been a big fan of video games my whole life, and it seemed pretty natural for me to use the simulator aspect of video games in my class. The University of Colorado at Boulder has a great website called PhET where they have a lot of simulations."

"After about the second year of teaching," he continued, "I realized I wanted more. I wanted a full-scale physics simulator that my students could explore in class, and it seemed natural to me to use video games because a lot of them run on physics engines that accurately portray the laws of physics in the real world." 

One Final Question

So, now for the question on everyone's mind...does either methodology actually work? Certainly, the students are engaging more with their material in both cases...but are they actually learning more? Sadly, we still have no idea. Not surprisingly, there hasn't exactly been a study on this sort of thing. 

 "I'm still trying to figure that out myself," said Pittman on the matter. "In some ways it's been a very good idea. But in other ways, the data is still out. When it comes to getting students motivated and excited about class, I think video games are clearly a great route. The kids were pumped. That's half the battle, especially with physics. When it comes to actual data - did my students actually learn more -that's still up in the air. There's a lot of research that still needs to happen before we can definitively say it's better or worse than teaching traditionally."