Video Games as Educational Tools

Thanks to Slashdot, I learned about a News.com article entitled More video games, fewer books at schools?. Apparently some educators are proposing that video games should be used as teaching tools as much or more than books currently are.

Using video games as a tool to educate sounds like a great opportunity. Reading about economic variables can be mind-numbing, especially without context. It is easier to understand how supply and demand affect a business when you play one of the variations of Lemonade Stand. Learning about history is difficult if you treat it as a series of dates and names that you need to memorize for a quiz or test. It is easier to remember that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th or that MacArthur said “I shall return” when driven from the Philippines if you play a game such as Koei’s PTO 2. Heck, I learned that Japan is in a timezone that puts that date at December 6th because of that game. Solving physics questions might be interesting, but calculating trajectories to launch bananas at opponents in Gorillas can demonstrate the concepts for you.

Good articles can provide balanced viewpoints, but this one had some strange quotes.

“But there’s still a question about the value to the extent that most of the world is not a video game. They’re not getting problems in real world situation,” [Dr. Joshua Freedman] said.

Most of the world is not a book, either. Children aren’t currently getting problems in real world situations anyway. I remember a physics problem involving a car approaching an intersection. You needed to determine if the car should continue, getting safely on the other side before the light turns red, or if it should stop to avoid an accident. I got the answer wrong. Why? Because the teacher did not tell me that the question was not about the safety of the car but about the red light. See, if you treat it like real life, then my answer would have been correct because I took into account the idea that if the light turns red when you are in the middle of the intersection, you’d be fine. The teacher assumed that as soon as the light turned red, the cross traffic’s light turned green AND, here’s the kicker, the cross traffic has instantaneous velocity. If this is an example of the real world settings children are expected to be getting, then I am sure that video games can do much better.

Technology taking over life is an article that touches on Hasbro’s new ION Educational Game System, but it mostly serves as a warning that technology is not a replacement for exercise or social interaction.

Well, neither is reading books, and yet I don’t see articles warning against the dangers of reading to the detriment of health or experiencing life.

I am not claiming that books are bad. I love reading books. I think that books are great for entertainment and learning. I just find it strange that when video games are offered as an educational tool, the arguments against it are that children aren’t getting real world situations or that they aren’t exercising or interacting. Even the person who argues for the need of video games in schools is quoted as saying something negative about them:

My 6-year-old, Julian, can step into a video game and a world of rules and figure them out. He’s not scared of the unknown or scared of failing. I think that’s something valuable that video games provide. But, I want him to experience much more, and [have] relationships outside of games.

And, of course, there are the quotes from the game-playing children who say some of the most uninformed things, such as equating entrepreneurship with hustling. These quotes are almost as bad as the news articles that use child game players to act as the balance to the arguments of psychologists and lawyers.

As I read the article, I got a weird vibe. It was almost as if there was a bias against the idea of video games being used to do more than subvert children. I don’t get it. I think using video games as educational tools is a natural fit. The Oregon Trail taught me history and geography. Lemonade Stand taught me about the challenges involved in running a business. Both expanded my vocabulary, as I didn’t know what it meant to caulk a wagon or what advertising was before playing those games. I learned that “inadequate” meant that there wasn’t enough grass to feed my oxen, which explained why they were dying whenever I got those messages. At the time, I had to look up these words in a dead-tree dictionary. I remember looking up scurvy in an encyclopedia when my character fainted from the disease in The Illusion of Gaia. And there were countless historical strategy games that led me to crack open my history books and read AHEAD of what my class was scheduled to learn in order to understand what really happened in the world I was participating in.

Books and video games. Why can’t they be complementary?

3 comments to Video Games as Educational Tools

  • I read the same article a few weeks ago, and like you, it just makes sense! Working in the educational video game world, I like to keep up with what everyone is saying and thinking about games in education.

    I definitely think games and books can be complementary, and even more so we should view games as supplementary. What are the possible downsides to at teacher introducing a topic, providing a lecture with teaching moments, and following up with a video game for reinforcement? What is more reinforcing for a kid then getting to play video games? Some kids live for that, and if we can help them learn while doing it, then by all means give it to him!

    Through working with Big Brainz, http://www.bigbrainz.com who is the creator of Timez Attack, it is obvious that high-end educational videos games can be made, and can be effective! Timez Attack is the ultimate multiplication video game and teaches absolute mastery for facts 2-12. Why force kids into the painful experience of flashcards and Mad Minute, when they can challenge themselves through winning a game!

    I think the “bias” you mentioned goes back to the analogy that if you tie an elephant to a stake and he can only walk in circles with the length of his rope, once he is untied he will just keep walking in circles…

  • Thanks for the comment, Jennilyn! I’m not sure what you meant by the last part, though. Are you saying that games haven’t historically been used to teach and so existing teachers aren’t going to start using them as tools? Or is it that people haven’t generally seen games as anything other than mindless wastes of time and so can’t see them as educational tools?

  • Yes!

    The edutainment industry has left much to be desired. Companies have previously developed unimpressive “tools” such as Reader Rabbit and have done a poor job of combining education with gameplay. As such left a tainted image on educational software.

    Big Brainz refuses to compromise on the education and the entertainment aspects of the game thus creating an incredible tool for students and teachers alike. There is no other game on the planet like Timez Attack that demands mastery and is complimented with entertaining gameplay and high-end graphics.

    However, due to past experience, and lack of experience, teachers are very resistant to bring video games into the classroom. It is such a shift from traditional methods it is hard to see beyond the circle they have been going around for so long. To be honest I can’t blame them. If the only educational software I had seen were the old school ones I would be hesistant to use them. But now that Big Brainz has discovered the key, it is only a matter of time before all the teachers leave their circle.