Ed-Tech Policy

Digital Games Bring Entertainment Into Learning Realm

By Andrew Trotter — August 11, 2004 6 min read
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Digital simulation games can do what many teachers find difficult: drench students in the colors and complexities of another time and place, give them experiences living and working, solving mysteries, and leading—and even sneak in learning when students think they’re only having fun.

That, at least, is the goal of educational simulation designers, who salivate at the beautifully rendered historical and fantasy video games and computer games that thousands of teenagers play passionately.

Such qualities could serve middle and high school classrooms well, say developers and researchers working on educational simulations.

“Game designers have done a much better job than we have as educators” in making digital representations of the world that are engaging, said Kurt D. Squire, an assistant professor of educational 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 said, noting that the westward-expansion game Oregon Trail and the urban model SimCity have been popular in schools for two decades.

Even those concerned about the overuse of computers in schools say that, after elementary school, digital simulations may have a place.

“When you get to junior high school and high school, these things can be very useful,” said David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University. “Older kids are able to deal with virtual reality.”

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 when 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,” said Marc Prensky, the author of Digital Game-Based Learning, published in 2000.

That doesn’t need to be the case, said Mr. Prensky, the founder and CEO of New York-based games2train.com, which creates games for corporations.

Playing Online History

A key problem is the relative poverty of the education market, which cannot afford the talent and meticulous development used to create entertainment games.

“In ‘The Sims,’ they threw out the first 10 user interfaces they made,” Mr. Prensky said, referring to a popular entertainment game on CD-ROM. “In education, you hire a professor and he writes it, and it’s done; you never reiterate.”

This fall, a new multiplayer historical simulation will debut for high school and college students that has many of the bells and whistles of entertainment games. Making History: The Calm & The Storm will examine World War II through 12 to 18 scenarios that take students from the 1930s to the postwar Marshall Plan.

The CD-ROM simulation puts students in the roles of leaders of nations on the brink of World War II. Each leader must decide, using historical facts and judging the moves of other players, how to balance production of guns and butter, whether to make treaties or cede or conquer territory, and how to respond to demands of its citizens.

Usually five to eight players take part at a time, on multiple computers.

Each leader has on-screen “advisers,” who pop up to suggest strategies, though not necessarily the wisest ones, their views reflecting the mind-sets of their country’s military, political, diplomatic, and economic elites of that era. Diplomacy can be conducted using network chat tools that can be viewed by all or only selected leaders.

Players face some of history’s momentous decisions, such as whether Britain and France should negotiate with Germany over the fate of Czechoslovakia.

Once all players have made the decisions for a given round, they see the results on detailed maps on their computer screens. Among the tables and graphs that track each nation’s progress is a set that compares it with the historical result.

No winner is declared at the end of a scenario, designed to last a classroom-friendly 45 to 90 minutes. “Is history ever over?” said Nicholas B. deKanter, the vice president for business development at Muzzy Lane Software Inc., the publisher of the series.

Mr. deKanter said 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.

The private Newburyport, Mass.-based company invested $2.5 million over three years to develop the simulation.

Balancing Act

Other educational simulations emphasize cooperative exploration rather than conflict.

River City, a prototype “virtual environment” that was developed at George Mason University and Harvard, puts middle school students into the role of medical investigators in a fictional but realistic late-19th century river town in the Midwest. Working in online teams, they must ferret out facts and develop hypotheses to explain a sickness that has swept through the town.

The River City simulation, which is primarily used to teach science, was tested last spring with “typical” teachers and more than 1,000 low-performing students at several urban schools, said Christopher Dede, a Harvard education professor who helped create the game.

Data on student learning won’t be available for another month, but will be compared with that of other students who studied the same curriculum using activities on paper, he said.

Though less detailed than Making History, River City gives students more autonomy and responsibility in deciding their path through the activity, Mr. Dede said.

Each simulation, just like their entertainment counterparts, must strike a balance between giving players control and not making the game too complicated, between posing intellectual challenges and rewarding them with excitement, and between allocating computer power to visuals and to interactive tools.

In fact, Making History presents dozens of options for the teacher to turn on or off—choices the teacher should weigh so the game doesn’t overwhelm the average high school student, several experts said.

A Cautionary Note

Mr. Squire of the University of Wisconsin said educators should not 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.

“The kid playing Civilization will get a lot of information for free,” said Mr. Squire, a co-director of the Games-to-Teach Project, an initiative based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to develop concepts for a new generation of interactive educational games.

But he cautions that choices of games used in schools should be made carefully. “Depending on the game, you get wildly different approaches,” he said. “Age of Empires really doesn’t try to model society in any way, shape, or form; it’s all military.”

Mr. Elkind of Tufts said students need to be reminded that, no matter how sophisticated it appears, a simulation is an oversimplified view of the real world.

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

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