Monday, April 14, 2014

By Jamaal Ryan

Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending PAX East in Boston. Sure there were panels to attend and games to play, but a particular conversation with a history teacher gifted me with a new perspective on video games and education.

The teacher and I conversed about how video games can be implemented in the classroom. I mentioned how I’ve read about games like Portal and Minecraft can teach math, science, and communication. The educator explained how he’s used games like Papers, Please and his own methods of using Portal in the classroom. Being that Papers, Please is drawn from historical fiction, he didn’t so much try to teach concrete history with it as much as he was looking to have his students learn about the socioeconomic systems of governments.

His prime example with Papers, Please was when an immigrant pleaded not to let the individual behind them through because they were a sex trafficker. After examining the alleged trafficker, one of the students denied his acceptance based on the plea of the previous immigrant even though all of his checks were cleared. Later on, the student was penalized for the denial because there was nothing on record that justified turning him away which resulted in a decrease in pay, directly affecting their ability to provide for their family.

His second example was an observation on how students played Portal. After assessing a range of students from different academic performance levels, he concluded that the lower performing students excelled at Portal far better than the higher performing students did. He theorized that the lower performing students approached levels in a trial and error fashion – an approach that isn’t appropriate for conventional academia – while the higher performing students were slow to success because they carefully observed each puzzle before solving. He added that the trial and error approach, which he pointed out is more aligned with real world problem solving – allows the students to reach the solutions faster that those who carefully assessed.

After dinner, I intended to speak to him about an idea for an experiment that I’ve been kicking around for almost a year. In graduate school, I remember being painfully bored in my Research in Social Work class. Looking at the professor with pen and paper was a quick way to put me to sleep. I then began playing Jetpack Joyride on my iPod Touch. With Jetpack Joyride’s low bar requirements of input and attention, I was able to stimulate my mind to the point that I was capable of paying closer attention to the professor. I was even taking better notes than my classmate that sat next to me (who actually was looking at my notebook for any notes that he missed). I relate this closest to students that doodle in class but are still able to pay attention.

My idea was to test a group of students on their proficiency in taking notes by conventional means. Then take the students who performed poorly and provide them with a game that had a low engagement requirement, and test then again to see if their attention was rated better.

I’ll be the first to admit that regardless of the results of such an experiment, handing some students a devise to play games on and not others is a sure way to allow the classroom to devolve into anarchy, but it can reveal yet another way games can be helpful in the classroom. The educator also told me about a panel that he attended at this year’s PAX that discussed how games can be effective in educating students in the classroom from teaching history through the Oregon Trail to having students design a game based on the civil rights movement.

Games are becoming a larger part of children’s lives, so it’s becoming ever more practical that more educators join the medium and incorporate them into the classroom. 

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