Why are computer games popular and is there something here for teachers and schools to learn from and exploit? David Kinane investigates.
In the enlightened 70s, comics (especially those American ones with superheroes) were sniffed at by those in the know as a poor substitute for reading; yet these picture books held their young readership spellbound … and still do.
Computer games and gaming are today’s digital equivalent of comics and, as such, are given scant regard in the classroom – unless, that is, they have the thin veneer of curriculum respectability about them.
These games, however, are often short lived in duration and do not provide a challenge to the students. What is it about commercial computer games that keeps devotees of all ages so captivated and engaged? And is there something here for educators to learn from and exploit?
The ultimate inquiry process
I remember a quote (I think that it’s attributed to Steve Jobs of Apple fame) that goes “if it needs a manual, its too complex”. If the quote is apocryphal it illustrates a point. The computer games industry makes more money than the Hollywood movie machine and what do you get for your $100 outlay on the latest version of Call of Duty? You get a plastic case with a DVD in it and little else, the rest is up to you. Yet the content of that DVD is incredibly complex and can only be successfully navigated through a process of problem-solving trial and error. Gaming is the ultimate inquiry process and millions are immersed in their own problem-solving gaming world and increasingly these challenges are being solved collaboratively online.
Jump into the ‘pit of despair’
James Nottingham (p4c.com) advocates that students should be taught how to problem solve through the ‘pit of despair’, a place that we should engineer our students to spend time in as it builds resilience and problem-solving skills. Gaming offers students the chance to jump into this pit with relish. Eliot Masie describes the problem solving scenarios of gaming as a process that allows students to ‘fail to success’. Each of these theories argue that students must get stuck in the initial stages of a problem in order that they can identify what factors are needed to succeed. Once they have identified what is required for success, the gamer attempts to solve the problem and, if necessary, repeat the scenario a multitude of times until success is achieved. Of course, in a gaming environment success leads to a new pit, honing problem-solving skills.
Derek Robertson of the Consolarium (itscotland.org) has successfully used gaming in the classroom. He has designed a program based around the Nintendo DS using the Dr Kawashima Brain Training and the Nintendo Dogs programs.
What are the lessons for us?
Gaming is the ultimate inquiry process; games provide an initial defining/immersion level followed by locating information, seeking and analysing information, and ultimately organising/synthesizing the new information to ensure success. Then the whole cycle is repeated with ever-increasing levels of complexity. Surely, these are the kinds of skills that we wish to encourage and develop in all of our students and gaming offers that opportunity.
If the prospect of introducing a games console is too much of a reach at the moment then there are programs out there that can help foster a problem-solving environment in your class. Game Maker developed by Mark Overmars is an excellent problem solving pit creating challenges for your students. (yoyogames.com/ gamemaker/). The West Point Military Academy runs an annual contest for students and has developed a free program, West Point Bridge Builder (bridgecontest. usma.edu/), which creates a scenario for students to solve. There is also the thinking skills section of iknowthat.com where students are challenged to solve marble run problems.
All of these resource programs are guaranteed to create scenarios and challenges that will require resilience in order to solve them. Gaming is good for learning; it is time to unleash the console in your classroom.
David Kinane is a specialist school ICT consultant and writes for INTERFACE Magazine.
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