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Video Games Can Improve Learning, Scientists’ Report Says

By Rhea R. Borja — October 24, 2006 3 min read
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Educational video games have great potential to hone critical-thinking skills, help teach academic curricula, and evaluate what students learn, concludes a report released last week by a prominent group of U.S. scientists.

“Harnessing the Power of Video Games for Learning” is posted by the Federation of American Scientists.

To take advantage of those potential benefits, the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists recommends in its report that the U.S. departments of Education and Labor, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, work with the video game industry to research and develop games that enhance learning.

As it is, barriers such as school districts’ limited budgets, their reluctance to buy products that are not research-based, and the somewhat negative reputation of video games among educators inhibit interactive-game companies from researching and developing educational video games, said Henry Kelly, the president of the Washington-based FAS, at a news conference held here to release the report. That’s why research and development for such games should be part of a comprehensive science and technology research program, financed in part by the federal government, the report says.

“The education market is absolutely unique,” Mr. Kelly said. “The school industry does not behave like other industries.”

The FAS compiled advice from almost 100 experts in science, education, and the video game industry to prepare the report, “Harnessing the Power of Video Games for Learning.” The report also draws on information from a national conference on video games, held in October 2005, in which experts brainstormed ideas for developing and selling video games that teach analytical, problem-solving, and other higher-order thinking skills. (“Despite Allure, Using Digital Games for Learning Seen as No Easy Task,” Nov. 2, 2005.)

The report comes as businesses, the medical profession, and the U.S. military, among other fields, are investing millions of dollars to build interactive games, also called “simulation software,” to teach and train their employees. For instance, the second annual Serious Games Summit, which will be held Oct. 30-31 in Washington, will explore how cognitive science, instructional design, and game development can work to build better learning environments.

“Many recent reports warning about declining U.S. competitiveness point to an urgent need to improve workforce skills and our system of education,” Mr. Kelly said in a statement. “Video games are engaging and can teach higher-order skills, and they are especially attractive to today’s young digital natives.”

‘Concrete Actions’

The business community also should play a more active role in making educational video games more available, the report suggests. Educational software publishers, for instance, should help develop such games for home-schooled students and the growing after-school learning market. They should also produce short video games that can be downloaded from the Internet, the report says. Those games take less time and capital to develop and pose less financial risk for the companies creating them.

One example of a fairly low-cost game is one newly developed for elementary and middle school students called Discover Babylon. The interactive game teaches the history of ancient Mesopotamia—modern-day Iraq—and the origins of writing, said Michelle Lucey-Roper, the federation’s learning-technologies manager, who has visited nearby school districts to introduce the game.

Students can either use a video game console or a keyboard to control the game’s main character as he walks through Mesopotamia and learns about writing from ancient cuneiform tablets. The FAS, along with Austin, Tex.-based Escape Entertainment Inc., and the University of California, Los Angeles’ Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, developed the game over two years with a $500,000 grant from the federal Institute for Museum and Library Services.

Schools in Fairfax County, Va., and Baltimore use the game, Ms. Lucey-Roper said, and the game can also be downloaded for free at www.discoverbabylon.org.

But all the research done and millions spent on building educational video games will be pointless if educators aren’t convinced of the effectiveness of video games in improving learning, said Don Blake, a senior technologist with the National Education Association. Schools of education should help in that regard, he said, and teacher professional development on using video games to enhance instruction should be provided.

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Video Games Can Improve Learning, Scientists’ Report Says

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