That’s Edutainment

By Andrew Trotter — October 07, 2004 3 min read
Simulations take educational software to the next level.

As demonstrated by its popularity in the computer gaming world, simulation software can do what many teachers find difficult to accomplish off-screen: drench students in the colors and complexities of another time and place, and sneak in some learning while students think they’re just having fun. That, at least, is the goal of designers of a new generation of educational simulations, who salivate over the beautifully rendered video and computer games that teenagers play passionately.

“Game designers have done a much better job than we have as educators,” says Kurt Squire, an assistant professor of educational communications and technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They “do a better job in introducing people to a new world, getting them to identify with it, and helping them learn the rules of their system.”

Interest among educators is there, he adds, noting that the westward-expansion game Oregon Trail and the urban model SimCity have been popular in schools for two decades. But research has yet to answer a cluster of questions around educational simulations their packaging of content, the transfer of knowledge away from the computer, and the role of the teacher. Equally important, does the fun stick around once the instruction shows up?

“Game designers say that as soon as you add an instructional designer to the team, the first thing they do is suck the fun out,” says Marc Prensky, author of Digital Game-Based Learning and the founder and CEO of the New York-based, which creates games for corporations. A key problem is that the education market hasn’t been able to afford the talent and meticulous development used to create entertainment-based simulations. Developers of The Sims “threw out the first 10 user interfaces they made,” Prensky says. “In education, you hire a professor, and he writes it, and it’s done.”

But that may be changing, judging by two educational simulations—one being introduced this fall, and another now being tested in schools. Both feature many of the bells and whistles found in commercial games many kids play at home for pure entertainment value. Placing students in the roles of leaders of nations on the brink of World War II, Muzzy Lane Software’s Making History: The Calm & The Storm examines the era through 12 to 18 scenarios that take students from the 1930s to the postwar Marshall Plan, each designed to last a classroom-friendly 45 to 90 minutes. Historical research for the simulation was done by graduate students from Harvard University, Champlain College in Vermont, and Salem State College in Massachusetts and was supervised by tenured professors from those schools.

River City, a prototype “virtual environment” developed at Virginia’s George Mason University and Harvard, emphasizes cooperative exploration over conflict. The software puts middle schoolers into the role of medical investigators in a fictional but realistic late 19th century Midwest river town struck by a mysterious sickness. Primarily used to teach science, the simulation was tested last spring with “typical” teachers and more than 1,000 low-performing students at several urban schools, says Christopher Dede, a Harvard education professor who helped create the game.

Each simulation, just like its entertainment counterparts, must strike a balance between giving players control and making the game too complex. Also like games, the simulations must be intellectually challenging enough to maintain students’ interest, but they also need to reward users with excitement, playing to computers’ powerful visuals and interactive tools.

Educators also shouldn’t overlook games that draw more loosely from history, such as Sid Meier’s Civilization III, in which a player can develop empires based on 16 historical cultures, from the Aztecs to the Zulus; and the conquest game Age of Empires, says Squire, who’s also co-director of the Games-to-Teach Project, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology initiative to develop a new generation of interactive educational games. But he cautions that games used in schools should be chosen carefully.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2004 edition of Teacher as That’s Edutainment