Video Games: Games to teach life skills

By LISA PICKOFF-WHITE  |  Feb. 14, 2005 at 11:30 AM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- Part 1 of 2. A group of researchers is trying to take video games from being just an after-school activity and introduce them into the classroom.

The Education Arcade, an organization of game designers, researchers and policymakers, is working on a series of educational games and examining how to use them in schools, teaching everything from physics to history.

One such game is called Revolution, a modification of Neverwinter Nights, a popular role-playing game. In Revolution, members of a high school class become citizens of a town during the American Revolution, where the students must navigate through life, both politically and socially.

Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks games can fill in the gaps of traditional teaching.

"Students have a hard time learning and teachers have a hard time teaching the process of history and large-scale aspects of it," Jenkins told United Press International. "Games stimulate a complex process with many variables. They excel at teaching something that traditionally has been hard to show."

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Constance Steinkuehler studies what students learn from the games they already play. She interviews children -- who she calls her informants -- to find out about how they play and what they learn.

For example, in one game, a group of children must decide what to take on a bus with limited space. Each item has a different worth. To decide what to take, the children constructed mathematical models and an Microsoft Excel worksheet of data, Steinkuehler said, adding that the group put more energy into the game than they usually do for a regular class assignment.

"What they were really doing was model-based reasoning," Steinkuehler said. "This is what high-level scientists do and what teachers dream about kids doing in class. I told them, 'what you're doing is science,' and they said, 'we're just finding an exploit in the game.'"

Cooperation is also a large part of game playing. Girls performed better on tests of the material after playing Revolution than their male counterparts, Jenkins and his co-researchers found.

"This was counterintuitive because we thought the learning scale would have to be larger for girls," Jenkins said. "Our hypothesis is that the boys played competitively, whereas the girls played collaboratively. The girls would work together, share secrets and basically did peer-to-peer teaching."

By integrating games into the traditional classroom, teachers are able to persuade students to do things they normally would dislike, but things they need to do to improve their game play or extend the world they are creating, Jenkins said. For Revolution, students research primary materials to find out what really happened during that time period.

Steinkuehler also found that students who normally say they hate writing would write volumes of fan fiction -- stories about favorite games and characters -- that they posted online. The stories helped students improve their writing skills because they would practice writing and peer-edit one another in fan communities.

Jacqueline Coffey, 21, loves to play games. She thinks the activity has improved her writing, hand-eye coordination and ability to work with others, and she said other girls should have the same chances.

"Games are a massive criticism of school," Steinkuehler said. "What they're doing outside of school is so complex and what they're doing inside is so impoverished."

In games, children can create their own worlds and rules and experiment with them, something they would never be able to do in school, Steinkuehler said. Also, because they enjoy the safety of a reset button, children are more likely to take chances.

"Games teach that if I'm not accepted or successful here, I can succeed elsewhere," she said. "I can't succeed as a corporate lawyer, but I can be a successful academic."

Games also make people define and articulate their goals, Jenkins said.

"There are many different ways people can view a scene," he said. "These are evocative spaces where it forces people into these conversations."

Also, games teach girls and boys skills they will need in the working world, Jenkins said.

"There is something good about competition, though," he said. "Women are going to confront men in their own spaces and games are a relatively low risk area to learn how to do that. There's also a benefit for young men to learn how to collaborate with women."

Coffey agreed with Jenkins and Steinkuehler that games help girls and boys interact.

"I think that if men and women have a similar interest, they're more likely to understand each other," she said. "Girls need to see that they can do whatever they want and shouldn't have to live by the stereotypes that are put in place by society. Blow cars up! Chop up aliens! Don't leave all the exciting stuff for the guys!"

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Lisa Pickoff-White is an intern for UPI Science News. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

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