You’re registering for classes for the next semester and come across a course titled, “Serious Games.” On the one hand, the idea of learning using video games in a classroom is intriguing, but based on past experiences, the expectation is a traditional classroom setting with rows of seats, bored and unengaged students with a professor at the front of the room speaking to the class about what makes certain games so “serious.”
The building where the course is held, unlike the usual college campus buildings, is off to the side in a small retrofitted house the university purchased for additional classroom space.
“Am I in the right space?” you ask yourself as you notice the classroom is a fairly large room with three center tables with chairs surrounding them, much like the imagery of jury deliberation rooms in movies.
On each table is the same board game, “Bang!” a roll-the-dice game based on Hollywood’s old American westerns.
“It was unlike any classroom experience I’ve had thus far. I thought the class was going to be a social discussion and analyses of games, but I never imagined we’d spend the class period every week actually playing the games we were discussing,” Kyle Addeo, an undergraduate student at Rutgers University, said. “I learned so much about myself, my classmates, and the ideas that board games subconsciously implant in us and bring out of us. When you’re dealing with racism, classism, poverty and stereotypes, the subject matters can be pretty intimidating, especially if you feel as though you aren’t a participant. But you realize that these games mask these issues so well, that you don’t even realize the issues are embedded in the game design. After you play some of these games professor Trammell had on the syllabus, you realize the pattern behind your own thoughts and think, “wow, why did I think that, or why did I not realize the game was designed this way before?” It’s such a compelling class.”
How can games provoke such in-depth emotions and learning experiences? They are just forms of entertainment, right?
“I’ve never been in a class where I was excited to come in and do the work every week,” Thomas Park, an undergraduate student at Rutgers University, said. “My classmates weren’t just guys and girls I see in class and recognize around campus, they were people that I grew to understand and really know. It was surreal in away. I never had a classroom experiences quite like that. The games didn’t only act as a form of entertainment, but they were a discussion and talking points . You really open up and show yourself more to the people around you when you’re playing a game that you enjoy. We were laughing, joking and really getting to know each other, which made the discussions all the more interesting. Instead of voicing our opinions in hopes that we hit upon what the professor wanted, we started bouncing our ideas off of one another. Everyone was really engaged in the conversation and encouraged to say what ever was on their mind.”
For the past three decades, millions of children have grown up playing games, from board games to video games to the more recent cellphone games, the gaming phenomenon has grown so fast that it rivals Hollywood, but are games only good for entertaining?
Games at their most basic form are at the epicenter of all early childhood knowledge while adding an additional and crucial element, interaction with others.
Researchers out of one of the leading institutions in the nation on the topic of games in education, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believe that classrooms are perfect environments to evolve with games and they say that it’s not a question of if games will be implemented in the classroom, but a matter of how.
Recently, President Obama endorsed a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education initiative to develop video games for educational purposes under the name, Serious Games.
The Serious Games initiative was created to train and educate players through games designed around problem solving, simulations or using real-world events.
These same games can still be entertaining, and arguably the more intriguing and captivating games fall out of the education category as compelling stand alone gaming experiences.
Dr. Aaron Trammell a rovost’s Postdoctoral Scholar for Faculty Diversity in Informatics and Digital Knowledge at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, believes that games can be more than just entertaining past-times, but can bring people together, help individuals learn more about themselves, and possibly change the world.
Through a course sharing the same name as the STEM initiative, Serious Games, Trammell showcased his own take on what Serious Games is about and used board games as a teaching tool to provide discussion and analyses on social issues the games presented.
“We used my definition of Serious Games in the classroom, which is a way of getting you to think of games critically,” Trammell said.
“The actual discussion of Serious Games is games in education. How could we use games to educate people? What is built into games commercially and what ways can we add educational elements to these games and subtract commercial elements to have a conversation around games?”
Trammell feels that video games can encourage an entirely different level of learning where students are more engaged and retain information easier from that deeper level of engagement.
He also feels that games are very effective teaching tool for a variety of subject matters.
“We can use games and develop specific games to help encourage learning,” Trammell said.
“One of the primal things about the theory of play is that you do two things when you play,” Trammell said. “One you learn how to assimilate things; you take things on and you repeat things. The other thing you learn is how to associate things. Which is that, not only do you learn to repeat things, but you learn to do these things that you repeat and stand in opposition to other things, and in difference to other things in the world. So that’s kind of like the theory around games and where it comes into learning. I definitely think they (games) have a big impact on the classroom. In my classroom I don’t necessarily use games to teach specific skills, but how we can use these games as catalysts for conversation, not only around what a game does but also around cultural topics and the places where these games are embedded into our culture. The sort of stuff I teach about games is the sort of stuff you would find in English courses, but I don’t think that most students today read books like they did for most English courses the way that they were designed. I feel like games give that same experience of reading a book and understanding a story, but have a more engaged participatory audience.”
It’s easy to overlook the amount of text presented in most video games and the idea that, for some, the game dialogue and text acts as a learning tool to teach the player the English language.
Understanding this reality is part of Trammell’s argument for Serious Games.
“I think another reason for why games are really effective in the classroom is that they speak to where people are right now,” Trammell said.
“Games are really hitting on a core part of an interactive era. You have an option to make decisions and you have the option to have a different experience than other people,” Trammell said. “When I was learning how to read, I learned through playing a computer game called King’s Quest. The game was a text based adventure game where you would type in your commands as you move through the world, and read the paragraph that came based on your decisions. That form of interaction was part of the reading experience for me, and I don’t think it’s a mistake. One of the mistakes people broadly make about culture is that it’s static. That we always will and always have read in a certain kind of way, and that reading is to be elevated over other forms of knowledge. I prefer a model that sees culture as more dynamic and that recognizes that for a generation raised on computers and games that this is the sort of media that we are going to consume. That’s going to be the kind of stuff that really speaks to the grain of the quality of life that we live in and that’s going to be the sort of stuff that our life experiences are going to be based around.”
As a lecturer for several years, Trammell teaches and studies the social effects of games and play and believes games need to be considered in the classroom not only as a learning tool, but also as a way to point out and break down different cultural barriers and stereotypes.
He uses games to bring out certain experiences that many classrooms are just not equipped or ready to have.
“If a professor walked into a room and we were all playing a Wii U, they may ask, “are you guys doing work or are you just playing?” but if every classroom at the school had a Wii U in the classroom, the question wouldn’t necessary come up because every professor would know that that is part of how we learn today,” Trammell said.
Trammell spoke about several issues that arose while constructing his course curriculum and said that there are some challenges to using games for a social and analytical course as, much like other forms of art, games create a space where each individual coming to the game leaves with a different experience.
“Outside of constructing the curriculum, the most difficult aspect of teaching a class like this, is listening to every student,” Trammell said. “It’s very easy to get lost in the action of the game and not the space of the players. A really important thing for me to do is to listen to what everyone is saying while they are playing the games and it’s a difficult skill to master. Understanding how each student felt about the game in the moment drastically changed the course of the conversations we had following the end of the game. It’s the kind of thing that’s unpredictable about games and if you’re going to use them in the classroom, as an educator you need to be prepared to receive various viewpoints and know how to react accordingly.“
The professor also mentioned the stigma he dealt with as a games educator teaching in an environment that was not equipped for utilizing games in the classroom.
There was a sense of deconstructing the traditional classroom that at times gave him an uncomfortable feeling.
“In terms of constructing the curriculum, I was worried my colleagues would think I was crazy, or we’d make too much noise, or more importantly, the possibility of breaking the space from it’s intended use,” Trammell said. “It’s like teaching a punk rock class and having every student pick up a guitar. While it may be profound for the students, it may disturb neighboring courses. But what is very scary is, games are like living things. You don’t know what’s going to emerge while you’re playing a game. The less structured on gamification it is, the more crazy things tend to occur. We used board games in class, and I honestly don’t know how you would attempt to teach utilizing video games in a classroom the way the traditional classroom is structured, and that’s a big obstacle for digital Serious Games. Most classrooms aren’t equipped with the necessary operettas for people to play digital games in the class, and most video games aren’t designed for an entire class they are usually designed for one person. Something has to change if Serious Games are going to work in the classroom. We would need the classroom to change, or we would need developers to adapt their game for the traditional classroom. What a school is, it’s not a play space and most classrooms aren’t ready to be a play space and it’s a big barrier for educators to take games seriously in classroom.”
Speaking of gamification, many times educators would take what some may call, an easy way out by incorporating game elements to their classroom instead of taking the plunge to teach using games themselves.
The incorporation of creating a points system where the player, or student in this case, is rewarded or penalized based on their actions, is known as the most basic form of gamification.
Trammell criticized gamification as a inaccurate dumbed down form of play, Fanny Ramirez, a doctoral student and part time lecturer at Rutgers University who’s research is focused on the social aspects of video games, shared similar opinions on games in education and gamification.
“When a lot of people think of gamification, they just take the basic elements of a game like the scoring system, the ranking system, points and badges, but that’s really just the surface of games, “ Ramirez said. “Games go so much deeper than that. All the meaningful lessons you can get from really investing in a game are lost when you’re just reduced to a system of scores and points. That’s why gamification fails in the classroom because it’s essentially ranking students against each other for no particular reason. There is no learning happening and no group experience. It’s just this really cut and dry most basic form of games. It diminishes the power of games by saying, “it’s just a system of points. It’s just ranking students.” Games can be so much more than that.”
Trammell and Ramirez were not the only ones to criticize gamification in the classroom. Nadav Lipkin, Ph. D student in Rutgers School of Communications and Information, shared similar thoughts.
“Even the word gamification itself is really gross,” Lipkin said. “It’s a horrible term. It teaches people to play that game and doesn’t teach them anything else. As soon as you attach these consequences, you’ve lost the point. Say a flight simulator works with gaming systems. If you then apply these point aspects to someone’s job or to their homework, there’s a higher risk involved. You don’t have any room to experiment when it’s your job. If you do badly in your job, you run the risk of getting fired. If you lose points in your class, you may fail the class. If you fail in a flight simulator there’s nothing to lose so you have that freedom of experimenting and trying new things. You’re not constantly being threatened by the negative consequences of failure.”
Aside from using games to dictate the entire syllabus, Ramirez spoke of using games as icebreakers to get students acquainted with one another and more comfortable analyzing each other’s work or even building off of each other’s ideas.
“Another way to look at games in the classroom is to look at cooperative games,” Rameriz said. “Some board games you need to play together. You either win as a group or you lose as a group. Putting students together in these types of situations really gets them thinking. Instead of pitting them against each other, they are working together to come up with a solution for the problem. By putting students in these situations they are more engaged than the traditional classroom where the professor is standing in the front of the room and talking at them instead of speaking with them. You also see bonds forming that many times become lasting bonds that will continue to exist outside the classroom. We are in a time where students don’t even speak to each other anymore and everyone is on their cellphone. Games have this very powerful social component to them that bring people together, and give people something to talk about.”
While games have proven to be a viable learning tool, Lipkin, Ramirez and Trammell all agreed that video games in the classroom is a difficult endeavor to accomplish due to misconceptions of video games in the media and by educators in general.
“Much of the research citied on the correlation between video games and violent tendencies in children are outdated,” Lipkin said. “Most of the studies were from early beginnings of video games and those studies haven’t really been updated since the early 80s. Three decades later, the media is still using the same studies, and that scares educators and parents. If games were to be incorporated in every classroom, the benefits would be tremendous, but the obstacles that need to be overcome before than becomes a reality are immense.”
It’s likely that within our lifetime, video games will become a crucial part to our educational system, especially considering that many of the next generation of teachers and professors would have grown up playing games. Wars are fought and won using games for strategies and some of the oldest games in history are based on strategic thinking. Taking all this into consideration, as well as the research found on the benefits of games in the classroom, it may be somewhat surprising if your kids bring home an Xbox game disc as their homework, but it may be less surprising if their class started meeting in a virtual world out of your living room computer.