I am the video game policeman in my house.
More often than my two younger boys would like, I march downstairs and tell them to turn off the PlayStation or Xbox and head outdoors. They grudgingly turn off the machines, but not without protesting that they were right in the middle of mastering some new “level.” I’ve played this enforcer’s role for years because the games never seemed good at doing anything but keeping my boys out of trouble. I’ve always believed they’d learn more by reading a book or just playing outside.
But over the past two years, the idea that video games can actually teach kids something has been gaining traction among researchers and educators. In 2005, the influential Federation of American Scientists recommended that the U.S. departments of Education and Labor and the National Science Foundation play more active roles in working with software companies to study and design games that improve learning. Last year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation kicked off a five-year, $50 million initiative to promote “digital learning,” including educational games. Those developments were followed by the annual Serious Games Summit, in which makers of games designed for education, national defense, and health care applications came together to share ideas and promote their creations.
Why the sudden momentum? “There are a lot of reasons converging,” says Michelle Lucey-Roper, whose title at the Federation of American Scientists is “Learning Federation Project Manager.” To begin with, she notes, learning scientists are framing better research questions about video games. And as games’ technology gets more sophisticated, the researchers are also seeing more overlap between the complex skills learned in games and those needed in the workplace.
The federation itself is currently piloting two games in middle and high schools. One, called Immune Attack, teaches students concepts about biology and immunology. FAS’ history game, called Discover Babylon, allows students to explore ancient Mesopotamia —now Iraq—and the origins of writing.
My 12-year-old son, who is currently obsessed with a role-playing video game that simulates experiences of American and German World War II soldiers, believes the medium is naturally suited for learning history and science. He sees possibilities in other subjects too because the games require players to master easier levels before moving up to harder ones.
“At first, I like it easy,” he told me recently. “Then when I beat the game, I go back and make it harder. I don’t know why, but when you do [well], you want to play more and more and more. It’s like an addiction.” That’s the kind of learning experience educators would love students to have.
I still have no intentions of turning in my video game policeman’s badge. But like any good officer, I plan to investigate, trying out my sons’ pastime for myself to see what I might learn.
Kevin Bushweller is the assistant managing editor for edweek.org and former project manager for Technology Counts, Education Week‘s annual study of technology in education.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Game On