Dewey Need Educational Video games?

People have struggled with the idea of creating educational video games for many years. A few companies have made some progress in this field but for the most part there has not been much study into the game’s effectiveness.

Speaking from experience I would argue that games, such as the ones created by MECC in the 80’s, are effective. I remember playing “Number Munchers” and memorizing my multiplication tables faster than I would have in a lecture setting. I remember assuming the role of a fish in “Odell Down Under” and learning about how I (my fish) fit into the food web. These experiences have stuck with me and to my knowledge it has also stuck with my friends who have also played these games. Obviously, MECC was onto something. Unfortunately that something must have been magic to them as well, as evident by their closure in 1999. So what is this magic? And if we can find it, what do we do with it?

Today educational video games lead a cursed life. For the most part they are loved by parents and loathed by kids. This is not surprising considering that the most popular (at least for parents and educators) educational video games follow a prize winning formula. They make academics explicit. Math formulas are plastered all over the front of box. Claims that students need practice are slathered on the back. If one didn’t know any better they might think their holding the very essence of the subject they want to study. Once the actual program is booted up the user is bombarded with questions, sometimes in exchange for an animation of some sort that disappears only to be seen when another question is answered. They feature academics so well that they forget it’s an educational game, not a virtual worksheet. The parents are over joyed, they feel they got what they paid for. The kids feel slighted, weren’t they supposed to be playing a game?

Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between how much an game sells, and how much it gets used. I’ve noticed quite a few times how kids get bored with an educational video game that forgets it’s a game. I would argue that this is probably the reason those games fail in the first place. Why should Batman waste time answering the question “2+2 = ?” ? Almost any kid knows that Batman much smarter and much too important to waste his time on such things.

So what are we to do? Well, why don’t we set the game up so that the skills desired must be applied in order to win? Say you wanted to teach english. Why not create a world where the student is a proofreader at a local paper. They are given a few articles that need corrections and must make the correct decisions before their deadline. Now the subject and the game are one. If a student wants to beat the game (they usually do) they must acquire the skills needed to be a proficient proofreader. Spelling, grammar, reading comprehension, anything a proofreader encounters can be inserted into the game. So proofreader doesn’t get you excited? Well then why not use Batman a better way? Batman is a detective . Thus students who play the game should also assume the role of a detective. Say you want to find the joker. Why not have the students analyze a letter from the joker to find out where he strikes next? If Batman needs to get into a room with a combination why not have the students crack that code? Cryptography involves many subjects including Math. In both this case and the previously mentioned case students must use math to advance the game. But only in this one do they not feel like it’s irrelevant.

Allowing the student to assume various roles in order to learn? What an odd idea? It’s not like someone’s already proposed learning through experience… What a strange idea to be applied to video games.