Video games have potential as fun, fast learning tools, educators say


Video games are exploding in popularity. Low-cost mobile games such as “Angry Birds” and popular products like the Nintendo Wii and DS have attracted many new gamers.

While video games traditionally have a place in leisure time, some educators see an opportunity to incorporate video games and gaming concepts into the world of education as well.

“Education really does need to be fun again. We forget that,” said Ben Ward, instructional designer for the Information Technology Assistance Center. “There is an inherent bias in education against games, and that has been around for a long time, and it hasn’t gone away yet: that because someone’s playing a game, it’s childish or frivolous. And I think we need to seriously visit whether this has any basis in reality.”

Part of Ward’s job is to study education and create ways to improve it.

Their often-unacknowledged complexity allows many games to have educational value, Ward said. The game designer has to find a way to teach the player the rules of the game world and the controls needed to manipulate that world. The best-designed games convey this to the player intuitively without ever saying a word.

According to an article by Jayel Gibson, educational video games can help increase memorization, context and cognition and address equality issues, language diversity and character gender options.

Using design techniques, games such as the “Civilization” series can convey the incredible complexity of international diplomacy in a condensed package by letting the player explore its workings through play, without reading a textbook or completing a worksheet. The series, created by Sid Meier, allows users to build civilizations from the ground up and include locations and time periods in America, Japan, Egypt, Russia and Spain, and various historical cultures including the Incas and the Aztec.

“The best type of learning, in my mind, is when you don’t realize you’re learning something,” Ward said. “And in any really good game, especially the triple-A games, the commercial games, there’s a huge learning curve in those games, especially if you’ve never tried one.”

Nathan Bean, graduate student in curriculum and instruction and coordinator for computing and information sciences, suggests this came about as a result of competition.

“Highly successful commercial games we see now have a lot of knowledge inherent in the way they are designed that is about learning,” Bean said. “That has come about not because they studied education theory, but because they have simply picked up the lessons by designing better and better games.”

One example both Bean and Ward held up as excelling in this regard is “The Oregon Trail,” a decades-old game that requires the player to plan and drive a caravan of wagons safely to Oregon. The trials and tribulations that threatened the lives and supplies of the actual settlers come to life in the game and teach players about the kinds of hazards settlers came across. It is realistic in that some caravans never complete their journey due to illness, lack of resources, or other challenges.

At the same time, games have more immediate applications in enlivening traditional schoolwork. According to Bean, integrating games into education is simple.

“A lot of times, [games] are being used as a stand-in for worksheets or other drill activities, where it’s just routine activities you do over and over again,” Bean said. “And they they take a little bit of gameplay and sandwich it between those activities.”

The fast-paced style of video games can also make them an attractive part of today’s education.

“The big thing that makes it work for education is that when you’re playing a game, you have immediate feedback and lots of it,” Bean said.

The rapid retry rate of video games can also help students get more practice while spending less time with a teacher. A student can try and fail hundreds of ways in the same time it takes teachers to grade a student’s work one time. This aspect is an important benefit of games in education.

“If you fail in a game,” Bean said, “you start over, and that’s been a staple of games for a long, long time.”

Editor’s Note: This article was completed as an assignment for a class in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications.