Educational Video Games: Coming to a Classroom Near You?

Popular video games, such as Electronic Arts’ “Madden NFL,” traditionally have been viewed as enemies rather than allies in the educational process. After all, many educators have questioned: What good can come from students sitting and banging away at gaming consoles for hours in an often futile quest for higher scores?

Quite a bit of good — actually — is the response now coming from a small but growing group of educators.

“Many students are now underserved by the public school system, and video games offer educators a potential way to reach them,” Liz Simpson, founder of the Learning Research Institute, a consulting firm specializing in this area, told TechNewsWorld.

Gaming Roadblocks

Although video games offer some potential benefits, they must clear some roadblocks before they are widely accepted. Currently, few schools have integrated video games into the classroom.

In fact, many teachers are unfamiliar with gaming and therefore unable or unwilling to bring them into the classroom. It is challenging to put an infrastructure in place so they are an integral part of the school curriculum. Meanwhile, finding funding to purchase games and train teachers significant obstacles.

One item that is clear is that video games are quite popular. U.S. companies sold more than US$7.4 billion worth of game console and PC video games software in 2006, according to the Entertainment Software Association, a video game vendor consortium.

As further evidence of the widespread acceptance, first day sales of new editions of popular games, such as “Madden NFL,” surpass those of movie blockbusters, such as the “Harry Potter” and “Spider-Man” series.

A Natural Connection?

Many of these video game customers are school-aged children, and certain educators see a natural connection between games and learning. These educators do not condone games where participants blow things up nonstop but instead focus on educational games. Enlight Interactive’s “Restaurant Empire” simulates the running of restaurant so students gain needed business skill.

Muzzy Lane Software’s “Making History” is a computer role-playing game where students take on challenges faced by significant history figures. Games2Train’s “The Algebots” helps students understand basic algebra concepts. In addition to subject matter expertise, pupils also enhance their computer skills, improve their typing, and learn how to manipulate spreadsheets

Another plus with these games is they hold the interest of today’s technically savvy students, who are immersed in constantly changing, highly stimulating, instant gratification environments. These students do not learn in the same manner as their parents; yet currently, much of the educational curriculum is based on traditional, linear teaching methods. Not surprisingly, that approach fails to capture the attention of today’s learners.

“Motivation can be a challenge for students,” Marc Prensky, CEO of Games2Train, told TechNewsWorld. “Video games come with a clear set of motivation tools, such as scores, moving to higher levels and reaping various rewards when a player performs well.”

Increasing Responsibilities

Critical thinking skills are something that educators value. Traditional learners process information in a linear taking one thing at a time whereas students today process information in groups. Finding patterns is key to generating high scores in video games. Schools want to teach students to interpret useful data quickly and discard those bits of information that are not useful to the task at hand.

Unlike humans, the games never lose their patience or become frustrated with students who struggle with new materials. The games also help students develop team-building skills because players often need to form complex alliances.

The focus fits with the issue of trying to make the students more responsible for the learning process. “The student does not have to listen to the teacher talk or look in a book for information; it is right there on the screen,” Prensky noted.

Gender and Generational Gaps

While many have criticized games as having little to no educational value, they are widely use in other areas. The military has been doing it with pilots and soldiers for decades, and corporations have been gaming for years as well. Prensky developed games that companies use to train their employees.

While the games have potential benefits, they also need to overcome various obstacles. There is a gender gap in the gaming industry. “The majority of gamers are now males so if vendors want to use these applications in classrooms, they need to develop more games that appeal to females,” Joe Meenaghan, president of the Game Institute, which helps programmers build video games, told TechNewsWorld.

Another significant barrier is that many teachers do not view video games as having any educational value. A generation gap is part of the problem.

“The average gamer is about 30 and the average teacher is 46, so there is a disconnect between how students and teachers view video games,” Learning Research Institute’s Simpson told TechNewsWorld. Her company has developed workshops that provide teachers with insight into the needs of today’s digital learners, help them understand the benefits of video games, and develop lesson plans that feature them.

Funding Sources

Funding is an issue. Schools are often in a predicament of having to decide if they can buy textbooks or give teachers raises. Consequently, most have been unwilling to invest in video games and video game training.

This has had a ripple effect on the design of educational video games. Building video games is a time consuming expensive proposition, made even more difficult because gamers often want to work with the computer industry’s latest bells and whistles. With a dearth of customers, few companies have taken on this challenge, and the dearth of competition has lead to delivery of some lackluster games.

Help is coming from a few places. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation pledged $50 million (that is being given out in $2 million per year increments) in research grants to study the influence of computer games and other digital media on student learning. The Federation of American Scientists has called for more studies that examine how video games can be used in education.

There will be more use of it in the coming years. “The students are ready for educational video games but the educators are not,” concluded Games2Train’s Prensky. “That outlook will change slowly, and games will play a significant role in the classroom.”

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