(Fellow blogger Tom DeRosa and I are trading posts this week. He runs the excellent blog, I Want to Teach Forever. Be sure and take a look at his book, too. Details after the article – JR)
I am not a gamer. I don’t own any consoles, and the only game I play with any regularity is Tetris online. When I look at video games today, I usually see them through the eyes of an educator. This is why I’m so convinced that everything we need to make paradigm-shifting educational video games that kids will actually play has already been created. Instead of starting from scratch, educators need to team up with innovative video game studios and merely tweak the powerful learning-based game models that already exist.
My revelation came over winter break as I was visiting my family in New Jersey. What was to be a very busy holiday turned into a week of me sitting on my Dad’s couch, sick as a dog. My father has an xBox 360 and regularly plays games that involve running around and shooting things (first person shooters or FPS in gamer parlance), none of which I’ve had interest in. This year he was focused on a game that was very different, where he was given a wide open world with innumerable choices and methods of achieving goals and completing tasks: Fallout 3, widely regarded as one of the best xBox titles ever (if not best video game ever).
It is a mix of first person shooter, role playing game (RPG), puzzle (in the vein of Myst or Riven) and open-world exploration (like a single player Second Life) on a scale that by all accounts is hard to find elsewhere. In this game, you make decisions that change your character, and who you are changes the possibilities of what you can do. You solve difficult problems, most of which have more than one answer. It’s the kind of thinking that we want students to do in school, that we know they need for college and beyond, but it often gets buried beneath rote memorization and test-prep strategies.
Fallout 3 represents a world of well-designed, immersive, and most importantly popular video games that have most or all of the structural elements that make learning possible. These elements are now fairly common in top games:
- Players make decisions that effect not only themselves, but the world around them.
- Players are faced with multi-step problems that require logic and reasoning skills.
- Collaboration and cooperation is encouraged (if not required).
- An engrossing story creates a context that’s fun and far different than their school-influenced concept of “learning”.
- Players are given small, specific tasks to complete, keeping meaningful goals in clear sight.
- Each small task completed is often part of a bigger picture, and each one opens up the possibility for other tasks that keep the player going.
- Most tasks or problems have multiple solutions.
- A comprehensive, fairly automatic system tracks players’ achievements, and can be referred back to at any time.
- There’s some level of freedom to explore and to choose which tasks they will do first (or at all).
- Often, tasks require or would be made easier with background knowledge of a subject players might not already know about. They are often forced to look up and learn about these topics if they truly want to reach their goals.
- Players are encouraged to go back and replay part or all of the game differently in order to reach measurable goals.
If you replaced the word “players” with “students” above, wouldn’t this list appear to be the features of an excellent, high-achieving classroom?
The immersive video game of today encourages, even requires learning and higher order thinking. The structure is there. More importantly, let’s not forget that these games represent the most popular and ubiquitous games available, with a generally bigger audience than movies and TV shows.
The only thing missing is for educators to partner with the studios to incorporate content across the curriculum, taking advantage of what’s already there. Isn’t that what the best teachers always do?
This is a guest post by Tom DeRosa, aka “Mr. D” of I Want to Teach Forever. You can find more ideas, resources and inspiration for teachers on his blog, or in his book Ten Cheap Lessons: Second Edition.