Play to learn: Team brings video games to the classroom

June 13, 2006

by Adam Dylewski

Prying the Xbox controller out of your kids' hands might actually be doing them a disservice.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and elsewhere are increasingly arguing that well-designed video games can be powerful tools for learning.

That sentiment will be at the heart of the second annual Games, Learning and Society (GLS) Conference, to be held Thursday-Friday, June 15-16, at the Monona Terrace in Madison. Educators, academics and video game designers will converge to discuss how gaming can enhance culture, learning and education.

The meeting comes at a time when half of all Americans play video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The multibillion-dollar gaming industry now regularly outgrosses Hollywood in sales. But the immense popularity of games has given rise to intense scrutiny, and as politicians have increasingly taken aim at controversial games such as "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," a growing number of researchers have begun to examine the broader significance of gaming.

Constance Steinkuehler, chair of the GLS Conference and a UW-Madison associate professor of educational communication and technology, says that the meeting is an important way to promote dialogue on the potentially positive impact of video games on culture and society.

"Folks generally see [the gaming industry] as the next Big Profitable Thing, and that's important, but it's equally important that we start and maintain a conversation about games and game culture that is not one driven merely by profit margins or what the next cutting edge technology might be," Steinkuehler says.

GLS co-chair James Paul Gee, a UW-Madison professor of educational psychology and the author of "Why Video Games Are Good For Your Soul" and "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning & Literacy," will discuss the design of education-friendly games and how learning conditions within some video games may outshine that of school classrooms.

"Video game designers face and largely solve an intriguing educational dilemma, one also faced by schools and workplaces: how to get people, often young people, to learn and master something that is long and challenging — and enjoy it to boot," says Gee.

Using modern cognitive science and educational principles, Gee argues that the best video games are excellent "learning machines" that operate at the outer edge of a player's competence, and thereby maintain a level of frustration that motivates individuals to stay with the game.

"Games can show us how to get people to invest in new identities or roles which can, in turn, become powerful motivators for new and deep learning in classrooms and workplaces," Gee explains.

The idea is that if schools adopt the learning principles that the best video game designers employ, students would be as engrossed by their biology class as they are with "Halo 2."

Kurt Squire, UW-Madison associate professor of educational communications and technology and co-chair of the GLS meeting, notes that mixing video games with traditional approaches to education might seem counter-intuitive because of the gaming culture's relative youth.

Although other mediums such as television have been recognized as a useful tool for education, the newly emerged medium of video games still has a long way to go. "With video games, we've been really trying to find that sweet spot," Squire says.

Squire works to develop new games and modify existing game franchises such as the "Civilization" series — a popular set of historical simulation and strategy games — for use within the classroom. During his doctoral work, Squire explored how "Civilization III" enhanced student learning in social studies classes in three educational settings in Boston.

Squire found that "Civilization" engaged students in unique ways and led them to utilize history and geography as tools for game play. "We're trying to give kids opportunities that have historical and geographic content and then create a set of tools to allow them to go from novice players to expert players to people who can make their own custom modifications and scenarios," Squire says. "Of the kids we talked to, roughly 50 percent would end up checking out a book on, say, ancient Rome."

As GLS researchers continue to explore the educational potential of gaming, Gee is optimistic that more people will embrace the marriage of entertainment and learning.

"I believe that the use of games and game technologies for learning content in schools and skills in workplaces will be pervasive in the future," Gee says. "This is education at its best and it is happening at home, outside of school."