Educating kids with video games - a laudable, but doomed, idea
According to a recent Ipsos MORI poll in the UK, three in five 11 - 16 year olds are in favour of using video games in the classroom. I'll let Eurogamer break down the numbers for you, but suffice to say this is a bit of legitimacy/ego self pleasure for the video game industry.
"Using video games to teach kids," goes the theory "makes it a more legitimate entertainment form." Sure, why not? There are, however, a couple of major flaws in this plan. Speaking as a chap who has worked with and around kids of various ages in recent times, here are my reasons why educating kids with video games is extremely difficult (not impossible, but the word "difficult" introduced into the vernacular of any publicly funded education system is read as "impossible", for various reasons we won't go into here.)
- Most of the games used in education are crap. Kids, from 4 to 14 and up, are not stupid. If you present them with a sub-par game, which many of the current educational crop are, then they will not want to engage with it. These are kids with PlayStations, Xbox's and PC's at home - they know what a current title should play like, and they expect the kind of high production values they see in their games at home. Even if the play is good, the game has to look the biz to be acceptable.
- Good games aren't used intentionally. Gaming being a hot potato issue, any educators wanting to use video games to teach have to jump several hurdles of perception with parents. Therefore any games that remind mommy and daddy of GTA, even from a graphical point of view, is off the cards. These games also cost more money, and harkening back to the previous point the educators prefer the cheap and cheerful games that look too innocent to attract any heat over something that the kids might actually enjoy - and therefore become engaged with.
- Educational games are too obviously educational. The best way to learn is to do it when you're having fun. Indeed, that's the very idea behind educating through gaming. However most, if not all, educational games have a very direct and obvious educational slant which kids will pick up on immediately, and then they'll switch off. Games have to be fun first, educational second - for example, a Civilization player can tell you quite a bit about the industrial revolution that he or she certainly didn't glean from a long forgotten text book. Of course if you let kids run wild with Civilization then there may be a few questions asked at the next PTA meeting.
- Games aren't being used to teach the right things. Games can substitute for text books in teaching facts and figures, but they are not used by educators to teach the other things that one can learn from playing a video game. Tetris is an extremely simplistic example of this - it's not considered an educational game, yet it is a great training tool for the mind in logic and problem solving. Bearing in mind that the objective of the near universally dreaded advanced maths taught in schools is to teach logic and problem solving more so than ensuring that we have a population that can solve for X, well you see the benefits of fun video games which teach these same fundamental skills.
So, what has to happen to make educational video gaming a worthwhile pursuit? Well, the games need to have high production values, educate in an indirect way, and they must be used to teach the right things beyond simple boring facts and figures.
The best way of doing this is not for educators and educational game developers to invest large wads of cash into the development of a whole new subset of the gaming industry. The educational sector should instead piggy back on the success of the commercial sector by utilising the same game engines, even games themselves, that the kids are playing at home to educate.
Why aren't id, Epic, Valve, Firaxis, Maxis and Paradox, among others, producing educational video games? Why haven't we seen an educational version of Half-Life? Don't scoff, there's plenty you could teach through that game - apart from the logic busting skills, in terms of straightforward learning you've got physics and social history as the obvious two. Stick in a load of those director commentary bubbles and replace them with explanations of what's going on and hey presto, you have an educational video game that's a whole hellova lot more fun than "Where's Carmon Whatshername?"
Civilization IV is educational as it is, but you could quite easily modify it to be even more so, bringing the Civlopaedia to the fore. Explain more about the history of technologies whilst kids are researching them, explain the basics of trade, industry and diplomacy as they play.
The Sims could be modified for all kinds of teaching - home economics, for example. How to buy a house, how to raise a family, how to budget a household, heck even sex education if you want.
There is no shortage of educational video games out there on the market - it's just that we haven't tapped the potential. Given their commercial aspect all of the above video games have commercial production values, and modifying them to be more educational than they already are costs a lot less than building an educational game from scratch, only to see it shunned by the kids.
Unfortunately I can't see this shift towards repurposing existing games towards education happening until at least parents, teachers, administrators and politicians are of a gaming generation who can understand and properly exploit gaming for the purpose of education.
Until then, kids will have to put up with another bore of a class when yet another sub-par game tries to teach them their 7 times tables with crap graphics, a basic interface and absolutely no relation to the cutting edge, immensely fun games they enjoy at home.
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