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Video games offer educators lessons in learning

February 22, 2010

Troxie has a problem. He needs a brain.

Wiggling his flagella, microscopic Troxie swims the vast ocean, gobbling up plant life, avoiding predators, and always growing, growing, growing.

Now and then, Troxie acquires a new body part, like the flagella that help him swim fast, or spikes to ward off enemies. But what Troxie really needs is some gray matter. And while he swims the oceans seeking out a brain, the 11-year-old who created him is building up his own. You see, Troxie is a character in the computer game "Spore."

Unlike the pixilated "Space Invaders" and "Pac-Man" mazes of yore, today’s computer games feature complex, highly interactive environments. Spore, for example, lets players create entirely new species and evolve them from single-celled microbes to space-traveling explorers.

Games have grown up, and lots of grown-ups are paying attention. Some parents might still see video games as time-wasters. But a growing number of people – from teachers to researchers to policymakers – are seeing great educational potential in these virtual environments.

Computer games such as "Spore," "Civilization," "World of Warcraft" and even the notorious "Grand Theft Auto" are “nothing but problem-solving spaces,” said James Gee, a professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education at ASU.

Gee describes video game environments as “situated learning” because the player is situated in an actual problem-solving space. He says that educators can learn a lot from computer games about effective ways to teach. For example, games provide information when it is needed, instead of all at once in the beginning.

“We tend to teach science, for example, by telling you a lot of stuff and then letting you do science," Gee said. "Games teach the other way. They have you do stuff, and then as you need to know information, they tell it to you. In school, very often you get a lot of words and you don’t get to use them until much later. By the time you use them, you’ve forgotten them. In a game you’re going to get them right when you can use them and see how they apply.”

For example, in the game "Do I Have A Right?" players manage a virtual law firm. They learn about the constitutional amendments as they build a staff of lawyers with expertise in different areas. They decide if clients have legitimate cases and match them with the lawyers who specialize in the relevant amendments. Players learn about each amendment as they acquire a lawyer who specializes in it. Then, they test that knowledge right away as clients walk through the virtual door.

"Do I Have A Right?" is part of a Web site called Our Courts, the vision of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Our Courts teaches middle school students about civics with the goal of inspiring them to participate in democracy. The site was created by education and law faculty and students from ASU and the Georgetown University Law Center.

Like most video games, "Do I Have A Right?" is a little bit addictive. Once you start playing, it’s hard to stop. Every success brings a new challenge. Gee calls this kind of environment “pleasantly frustrating.”

Gee understands pleasant frustration firsthand. He fell into gaming when his son was six years old and started playing "Pajama Sam." Gee decided to play along so he could help his son, who turned out not to need help. But Gee found the program intriguing and decided to try a game designed for someone his own age.

He picked up a copy of "The New Adventures of the Time Machine" and was “blown away” by how difficult it was. The tenured professor realized he was learning something completely new for the first time in years. And once he stopped worrying about failing – something schools consider negative – he started enjoying the experience.

“Games try to stay within, but at the outer edge of, your regime of competence,” he said. “That’s a very motivating state for human beings. Sometimes it’s called the ‘flow state.’

School is often not pleasantly frustrating. Schools are often either just frustrating or they’re too easy. The only way that you can hit this way of being pleasantly frustrating is to customize to the player.”

Gee was one of the first scholars to seriously examine the educational potential of video games. In 2004 he wrote one of the earliest books about how games use good learning principles – "What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy." 

One thing games can teach us is how to manage assessment better. Currently, schools use standardized tests administered by an outside testing industry. In games, however, assessment and learning are tightly married. Games constantly assess player performance and provide feedback.

“We have a standardized testing regime that is focused on skill and drill and facts, not problem-solving," Gee said. "How do we change our assessment regime so that we favor innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving? Then it would fit with the situated learning we’re talking about."

Integrating learning and assessment also is less expensive than supporting an independent testing industry.

“And you’re not teaching to a test, you’re teaching to your actual learning goals – the goals that you hold regardless of a testing industry,” Gee said.

Gee uses World of Warcraft, the most popular massive multiplayer game in the world, as an example.

“Fifteen million people are all playing the same game," Gee said. "It’s standardized completely. Except they all play it differently. But if you wanted to judge them, the information on them is so copious you could make many judgments across all the players. The company has put all that information into completely statistical terms."

Another feature of gaming that could apply to education is the practice of “modding.” Many game developers invite players to modify their products. They share the software and encourage user to create things like new maps or scenarios.

Gee says schools could enhance learning by inviting students to “mod” lessons.

“Think about it," Gee said. "If I have to make the game, or a part of the game, I come to a deep understanding of the game as a rule system. If I had to mod science – that is, I had to make some of my own curriculum or my own experiments – then I’d have an understanding at a deep level of what the rules are.”

He noted that educators do not need to use actual computer-based games to incorporate these educational principles. In fact, good teachers have always done these things intuitively.

Now, a lot more people are taking note. In November 2009, President Obama announced a campaign to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics design. As part of the campaign, the MacArthur Foundation and several technology companies have launched a competition to develop video games for teaching science and math.

In fall 2009, the Quest to Learn school for kids in grades 6-12 opened in New York City. The school, created in part with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, uses the underlying design principles of games as the basis of its curriculum. The school was created through a collaboration between New Visions for Public Schools and the Institute of Play. The Institute of Play also works with ASU researchers at SMALLab, a mixed-reality learning environment. (To read more about SMALLab, click here.)

Gee shared his expertise on games and learning at the 2010 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a symposium titled, “First-Person Solvers? Learning Mathematics in a Video Game.” He has written four books on games and learning to date, including an upcoming work on female gamers, co-written with his colleague Betty Hayes. The book, "Women as Gamers: The Sims and 21st Century Learning," comes out in May 2010.

Meanwhile, Gee continues playing games every day. His current favorite is "Dragon Age," but he says he plays almost anything you can name.

“If you’re an anthropologist studying Samoa, you have to go to Samoa,” he said. “This type of research, where you’re going to study something that’s out there in the world, requires you to live in it for a while.”

Not that Gee minds the work. He knows his job is enviable.

“I went to my son’s school on parents’ day a few years ago, and parents had to say what they do for a living,” he said. “When I told the kids I played video games for a living, every kid asked me: ‘How can I get that job?’”

Written by Diane Boudreau

Media contact:
Joan Sherwood