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Grad student turns love of video games into career

October 09, 2013

Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series about student excellence at the university. To read more about some of ASU's outstanding students, click here.

Jeff Holmes, a doctoral student in the Department of English at Arizona State University, plays video games for a living. However, it isn’t the typical World of Warcraft game play that you are thinking about. (Although that is his favorite.)

Holmes has spent his more than 10-year academic career analyzing gamification. In fact, part of his research includes analyzing the ins-and-outs of how video games act as learning technologies and the problems they seek to address in the larger context of global society.

The Chicago native proudly describes himself as lifelong gamer. His affinity began out of frustration with the original ET game for the Atari 2600 that was widely criticized for broken features.

“There was a hole that you fell down and could never get out of. As a four-year-old I remember thinking, 'Why can’t I make this work?' It was the first time I was ever being critical of something I was doing. You are supposed to be able to solve a problem in a video game and I remember the tragedy of crying when I couldn’t,” he said.

Instead of letting the depression set in, Holmes played on. During his undergraduate time at ASU, he took a special topics course that discussed the rhetoric of video games. It was the first time that he was actually studying the thing he loved. The experience propelled him to realize that a real discipline and career existed in the world of gaming beyond being a player. It wasn’t just about video games as texts, but rather how people engage with them.

In a symbolic turn of events, he is now teaching a similar version of the course that focuses on the digital rhetoric of games. His thesis examines game-based learning technologies in classroom settings. An example of such is the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College that uses Quest Atlantis, a game that allows future teachers to act in a classroom setting with lesson plans.

The Center for Games and Impact at ASU is also reaching out to local middle schools to test how games can be incorporated into lessons plans. One class was asked to play Mystery of Tiga River, a game that has students virtually act as scientists trying to uncover the source of pollution in the river. They must conduct research, analyze tests and use critical thinking to determine a solution.

“These games are putting students in a position to experience first-hand the thing that they are studying. You can also use these games to open a discussion about problems in the world like pollution, poverty or labor issues,” said Holmes. “The great thing about games is that you are providing a safe space for students to fail.”

In a normal classroom setting, one mistake can mean a failed test. However, Holmes says that in a virtual world, students can make mistakes as they go through the process and it will only result in starting the game over. They can run through the games until they get it right, something he believes enhances the experience.

“Games get students excited about things they otherwise may not be interested in," he says."Telling a student to read a textbook can be one-dimensional. Asking them to play a game like iCivics is an interesting way of positing learning. They are having fun but also learning about civic participation.” 

Through his work, Holmes has found that games are directly teaching students valuable skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, data gathering, analysis and decision-making.

“The evidence suggests that these are great gateways into social practices that are valued skills in the 21st century. They are part of a large movement that calls on games for change,” he said.

Interested in giving gamification a try? Holmes recommends playing Minecraft, Portal, Darfur is Dying, Foldit and Gamestar Mechanic.