Developing education: is there room for video games in classrooms?

One of the biggest challenges for teachers these days is to find ways to help integrate students into a world that is becoming increasingly technology oriented. What’s becoming more attractive these days is the prospect of educational gaming.

The idea is that games will help engage people in activities that they don’t typically find engaging — activities such as learning. As developers are looking to tap into other markets, educational gaming is a field that could potentially be coming into its own.

There is definitely an appeal for educational games as we’re seeing more video games in everyday households. The more popular games however — the ones being played by these impressionable youths, typically involve things like killing monsters, aliens, terrorists, strippers, and so on.

What exactly are educational games supposed to teach us? Many games are being cited as tools for the classroom, but within curriculums that are becoming increasingly standardized, are their any measurable outcomes to any of these games? And should they go as far as being used in classrooms?

Arguments in favour of education in video games feature some analysis of how games foster problem solving skills and hand-eye coordination, but these are more general and abstract concepts compared to the measurable skills that teachers aim for in the classroom.

The games that I’ve seen focus mostly on rote learning — answering math problems and practicing spelling. While these are important skills, these are things that can be taught with a chalkboard or pen and paper. While it may be attractive to bring these activities into the flashy, and oftentimes colourful realm of gaming, it is also costly. Not only does it require expensive hardware to run the games, technology is still rapidly changing and will likely require a lot of upkeep in order to stay current.

While games offer users the experience of actually being able to participate in a narrative, I’ve yet to see a game that can accommodate to a significant amount of complexities within a learner and that could take on a “teaching” role.

This isn’t to say that there is no educational value in video games. Paul Dean of IGN explained that he learned everything he knows about the American Civil War from video games. I’ll admit that after playing through Call of Duty 4, I’ve been able to recognize the landscape in photographs without any context but the images themselves. But this type of learning is very dependant on the individual and not a consequence to the purpose of the game itself — which is to entertain (and to make money in doing so).

In order to see the educational value in games, it might be more pertinent to look at other forms of media, and how they are used in the classroom. Films can be a valuable tool within classrooms to help students visualize a particular place and time, or to examine certain constructions around narratives and representation, but a teacher always has to be careful when using film in the classroom; the tendency for students’ eyes to glaze over and for them to lose site of any learning goals is an attractive one.

Where technology is likely to remain relevant is in accessing information. Students need to learn how to navigate the increasing amounts of information that is becoming available to them in the world. The tools of technology in accessing information should be incorporated into the classroom in order to prepare students to engage in their own learning. Whether these skills can be incorporated into some kind of game remains doubtful.

In this sense, if games are to be used in education, they should be recognized as the tools they are, but never as a replacement for good teaching.