Gaming advances as a learning tool

Educators increasingly are using sophisticated computer games to snag and hold the interest of the “digital natives” in their classrooms, but some teachers have trouble accepting the educational value of making learning fun. This obstacle cannot be found in the cutting-edge learning environments described in this report, starting with one game-augmented course that has kids learning before they even know it.

Profit and loss … PowerPoint … spreadsheets … typing practice: This junior high school business class could have given a case of the yawns to a buttoned-down executive, not to mention the kids.

To University of Wyoming professor Liz Simpson, what the students needed was something many teachers wouldn’t even whisper about: a computer game–and not one designed for education, but solely for self-indulgent, time-consuming entertainment at home.

Simpson and a growing number of educators say that such computer games–“Restaurant Empire,” in this case–can make school more engaging for today’s “digital natives” who have never known a world without the internet, cell phones, text messaging, and Sony PlayStations.

Far from rotting the brains of the Laramie, Wyo., Junior High School business students, she says, the game jolted them into enthusiasm about tracking profits on spreadsheets and typing up journals on running a business. They even peppered a pizzeria owner with questions more typical of restaurant industry insiders than early teenagers, like how he thought the furniture and art he chose for his restaurant could help the business.

“We’re on the leading edge of change, bringing a new tool into the classroom and responding to learner differences that have evolved with technology,” Simpson said.

Her argument goes like this: Youngsters nowadays can find online anything they need to know, any time. That renders the old teacher’s saw, “Someday you’ll need to know this,” less convincing than ever. But with a computer game, relevance to life becomes incidental; students need to learn in order to play the game in front of them.

“Kids want the information when they need the information,” she said. “So they would say, ‘Why is this not matching up?’ And we would say, ‘Well, is it your net profit or your gross profit?’ And they’re going, ‘Well, what is that?’ OK, boom! Now I can tell you.”

Working in groups of three, the students used “Restaurant Empire” to create virtual restaurants, tending to details like training the wait staff and calculating whether sushi would turn a profit. They had to write reports and use Microsoft Excel to track the numbers. They also divvied up business responsibilities within their groups.

“It makes the class more interesting,” said Hannah Smith, a tenth-grader who was in the class last year. “You don’t have to listen to the teacher talk all the time. You don’t have to look at a book all day.”

Janet Johnson, who taught the business class after returning from a 19-year absence from teaching, said she found out quickly that keeping students’ attention is much harder than it used to be. “When you can go home on a computer and build a zoo from ‘Zoo Tycoon,’ sitting and learning Excel is pretty mundane,” she said.

But she said that with Simpson’s help, “Restaurant Empire” turned her class around. “Before they know it, they’re telling you what a business plan is,” she said.

Using computer games to teach is hardly new. The military has been doing it with pilots and soldiers for decades, and corporations have been gaming for years as well. PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, taught its employees about derivatives–a category of investments–using a game about a mining company in outer space.

“It’s a very clever game,” Marc Prensky said of the adult investment game. “Very nicely done, full of fabulous information.”

Prensky is a game designer, gaming consultant, and author of two books on using computer games to teach, Digital Game-Based Learning and Don’t Bother Me, Mom–I’m Learning! Neither he nor Simpson, however, has been much impressed with many of the games designed for teaching children. “Completely boring,” said Simpson.

“What they’ve done is taken your pencil-paper word search and made into an electronic word search. It’s still a word search,” she said. “When school tries to do commercial electronics, what they really do is school electronically.”

Prensky, who is familiar with Simpson’s work, said educators have been trying out several ways to use entertainment games to teach.

Students can work on games in groups, he said, or a teacher can control the game with input from the entire class. Or a teacher might assign a game as homework. After a lesson on the Spanish conquest of South America, for instance, “Age of Empires” could be assigned for students to pretend to be Francisco Pizarro at home.

Prensky said he has been designing educational games to rival the complexity–and match the appeal–of entertainment games. “Games are really a language for this generation,” he said.

Others have tapped into the same market. Muzzy Lane Software, of Newburyport, Mass., has created a computer roll-playing game designed specifically for classroom use, called “Making History” (see story: Computer simulation is ‘making history’). In collaboration with the Game Institute, Muzzy Lane also offers an online professional development course to help educators incorporate gaming into their classrooms (see story: New course teaches instructional gaming).

Even the Federation of American Scientists–which typically weighs in on matters of nuclear weaponry and government secrecy–declared last fall that video games can redefine education.

Capping a year of study, the group called for federal research into how the addictive pizzazz of video games can be converted into serious learning tools for schools (see story: Scientists: Can video games save education?).

The scientists’ theory: Games teach skills employers want–analytical thinking, team building, multitasking, and problem solving under duress. Unlike humans, the games never lose patience. And, they’re second nature to many kids.

When students talk about gaming, Prensky said, teachers should listen–and learn. “The situation we have now is a situation of mutual disrespect. The teacher will say, ‘I don’t care about those games–those games are a waste of time, and you’re killing your brain cells.’ And the kids are very hurt by this,” he said.

Computer games have become very sophisticated, he said, but teachers “think [students are] playing the equivalent of solitaire over and over again.”

That’s not Mark Greenberg, whose students at Phoenix Union Cyber High School in Phoenix, Ariz., design their own educational games. Greenberg said he sees teaching potential in the most complex games of all: massive, multiplayer online role-playing games, which bring thousands of people together online. The players form complex alliances, which Greenberg said could help social studies students understand real alliances between nations.

He doesn’t think computer games are always appropriate for teaching. “But I think they’re good practice to solidify an idea, once kids have learned about it,” he said.

Simpson said classroom gaming should always be carefully planned and closely monitored, and “shooter” games like “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” are out of the question.

Some games, however, can be used in a variety of ways, she said. For example, Simpson has used “Restaurant Empire” not just in business classes, but also to help teach economics in a social studies class at Whiting Alternative School in Laramie.

“We went out and purposely got culturally different restaurant owners to come in and talk about the communities they were serving. So we looked at it from a socio-economic perspective, rather than business and entrepreneurship,” Simpson said.

Simpson and her research partner, Frances Clem, were tapped by the Albany County, Wyo., School District to design and deliver teacher workshops on classroom gaming last summer. Using a $114,000 Wyoming state grant, they worked with more than 40 teachers in the district to give them insight into the needs of today’s digital learners, letting the teachers experiment with a range of school-appropriate games and write lesson plans that incorporated their use.

The workshop, which is available to other school districts through the Learning Research Institute, already has shown results: Teachers and administrators alike are increasingly comfortable with the use of video games in standards-based curricula, Simpson says, and a number of workshop graduates are experimenting with gaming in their classes.

To study the influence of computer games and other digital media on student learning, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation last fall announced plans to donate $50 million in new research grants (see story: MacArthur to invest $50M in digital learning). Beginning this year, MacArthur says, it will donate $2 million a year toward research projects intended to explore the impact of games and other media on today’s youth.

Even Greenberg would like to find out precisely why a student’s eyes glaze over during quadratic equations–and light up in front of an Xbox.

“If we could just harness whatever’s making him focus so hard and transfer that somehow to school, then I think we’ve revolutionized education,” he said. “And I think that’s possible.”


University of Wyoming

Learning Research Institute

Marc Prensky

Muzzy Lane Software

Game Institute

Phoenix Union Cyber High School

MacArthur Foundation

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