A play date with your teacher
By Preethi Ann Thomas | Published: 18th November 2013 11:01 AM |
It’s not uncommon to see someone scoff at the idea of letting children play and thereby learn, as in our society, rote learning is considered the key to cracking exams. However, the alternative is gaining ground elsewhere. Gaming is now being sought after not just by teens but those who teach, and those who learn, right from primary to higher education. The writer grew up during the age of Mario Brothers, which apparently teaches several important lessons — how to master a level to move forward, understand that you get many lives (read opportunities) to succeed and learn to use several tricks and resources to save the princess or achieve your goal.
There are plenty of controversies surrounding gaming — its impact on player behaviour and their attitudes to the world around them. Games like Mortal Combat, Halo and Grand Theft Auto have been accused of making players aggressive, leading an isolated life, encouraging racism and having an incorrect/unfair portrayal of gender. But continued research has proved that gaming has improved hand-eye coordination, improved attention among teens, better decision-making abilities, reflexes, etc. Paul Philip, a gaming enthusiast and reviewer, who has been gaming since he was six, says, “The effects of gaming vary from person to person — people like myself aren’t hobbled by it. Besides being fun and giving you a rush, games teach strategy, teamwork, maths, social interaction, quick reflexes, competitive nature, multi tasking, etc. With games like World of Warcraft and Defense of The Ancients, social interaction is key. Gaming also promotes technological advancements — the PS4 and Xbox One are tech powerhouses. Social interaction has become the leading medium games are made with, be it vocal or typed.”
It is this kind of positive attitude towards design, development and the use of games in learning that the author witnessed at WISE 2013, which was held in Qatar last month. Katie Salen, executive director of Institute of Play, USA, is a game designer, who actively applies principles of game design to learning challenges. She is a professor in the School of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University and researches on game design, design education and gamer culture. “Institute of Play is a not-for-profit design-led studio. We build things. We look at an intersection of game design, play and learning. We’re looking at how we can design and apply tools, software, curriculum, etc.”
Apart from designing and developing games, she has co-authored and edited books like Rules of Play, a textbook on game design, The Game Design Reader and The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. She continues, “We mostly work with middle school and high school children. But this model can be applied across all segments, even higher education. We saw a particular need in the middle-school level (10-11 year olds), a point at which children start to get disengaged from school and learning because play gets stripped out of the curriculum. We felt that was the space to do a really good intervention. We are obviously looking at the pathway kids are going to take, moving them into higher education. So we also need to look at changing the way higher education works now to provide a space for these kids to thrive in. We’re trying to help develop kids that aren’t just good at taking tests. The current scenario shows us just that. They are expert test takers. But when they move higher up, we see that they don’t love learning and they don’t know how to learn.”
Their work has been applied to a range of contexts — education is a big space they’ve worked in apart from collaborations like the one with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation to empower people on questions of identity and help them find a place in the world. They have been consulted by Burberry to develop a curriculum for those moving into the fashion space, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York to develop a game for people visiting the museum to engage with the artwork in different ways.
Her background as a designer for 10-15 years and working with a commercial outlet to design a game to teach children to design games got the ball rolling. Her team has 37 full-timers and some consultants on board. They have offices in New York and San Francisco. “We’re gathering data that is showing games to be very effective in learning. Stanford’s recent study (SRI) showed that those who learned certain competencies via games learned 12 per cent more than those who learned without games. Some studies show the positive link between socio-emotional development (leadership, collaboration) that happens as a result of games so there is increasing data to support what we believe in and great potential in this field. It’s hard to know right now, but over time you can probably observe results.”
She clarifies that there is no competition with traditional learning, but that they’re trying to build on the best practices that come out of traditional classroom learning. This is a chance for teachers to reconsider their techniques with a different set of tools that are available now. “Kids are involved in the design process along with teachers and curriculum designers – so there are various levels of iteration/revision that goes into launching a game via feedback. In this way, we are getting kids to reframe their notions of failure as reiterations – move from a negative to a more positive approach. When teachers involve kids like this in feedback, collaborating and constantly innovating, it works for all. Ownership, involvement are all interesting effects. Another effect was reported by parents where they are less surprised that their wards are doing better academically, and more surprised that their social nature is also improving through collaborative problem-solving and learning, sharing expertise and being part of a larger community. “
But aren’t kids more distanced from reality when they’re gaming? “When we develop the curriculum, we seek to engage in real-world problems and engage them with the environment. Stimulation and fantasy components exist but the problems addressed are like sustainability, bullying in school, mathematics and history. Rooting kids in the real world is the goal. We have a game where kids look at an event in history through perspectives of seven different ghosts. It’s fictional because there are ghosts but all of the elements and facts are very real. Games have definitely affected teacher retention, we’ve noticed through lower teacher turnover. With students, there is a high level of engagement, but retention will take a longer time to measure.”
They have a studio in California that is in collaboration with electronic arts to look into artificial intelligence (AI) and wearable computing. They’re now working on a modification of the SimCity game which has a lot of AI components. They run an after-school programme called short circuit which teaches kids about electronics and robotics, and make wearable things that light up or make sounds. “Kids are very receptive when it comes to technology and the blurring of physical reality and virtual space. We have a 3D printer in school so that they can build models and print them out. Healthcare and engineering learning spaces can also be supplemented with these ideas. Gaming is quite a productive space right now, the acceptance of which has been rapidly shifting in the recent years,” says Salen.
Learning through analogy
Prof Sara de Freitas, former director of research and professor of virtual environments at Coventry University, UK, was instrumental in setting up Serious Games Institute, a hybrid model of research, business and study. It is now part of SGI Group, which has a multi-million pound turnover annually. The group also includes Serious Games International with a purely commercial brief, SGI Research Division and SGI Business Projects group. In addition, the Institute offers education and training, with a newly established master’s programme and doctoral school. SGI brings together industrial partners and academic experts from arts and design, health and life science, business and environment, and computing and engineering. Sara led a cross-university applied research group of 50 academics and is a member of the Coventry University Research Committee.
The research side that she was engaged with looked at how effective learning can be when supplemented by games, artificial intelligence, tangible interfaces, etc. They develop games and also test ones developed by others. An example is Code of Reverend commissioned by the UK department of child support to try and improve road crossing behaviour among the 100,000 children that played it. “We look at learning through analogy. We incorporated monsters to make it interesting. Games are very important in terms of changing behaviour and changing attitudes. Our initial goal around 14-15 years ago was to judge the effectiveness of game-based approaches and we found it was more effective than traditional learning. Now we’re looking at how to tweak it, make it more applicable and replicable in different fields, use artificial intelligence and better software, game analytics and design to make the game more experiential and interactive. How to scaffold learning is what we’re looking at,” she says.
SGI works in education, health, environment and manufacturing. “We are sometimes approached to solve problems. From kids to professionals, we can help them all. We’ve noticed that the higher education sector is slower to embrace technologies and games. There is conservativeness in the sector, while the uptake is more in schools. Helping teachers handle kids better, encouraging better classroom behaviour, are all things we work on daily at Serious Games.” Mazel Tov is a game being developed for migrants coming into Europe and it teaches them about language learning and culture to help them adapt. It will be available on mobile app stores and can be played by all. This can easily be used by students going to different countries to study.
Sadly the budget is low, unlike commercial games, rues Sara, who has taken on a role as associate deputy vice chancellor for teaching and learning for Curtin University, Perth, Australia. “Code of Everand was the largest budget we worked with, which was £2.7 million and games which get 10 mn or more — the quality is much higher like Call of Duty which had a budget of $240mn, and the last Grand Theft Auto cost $120 mn. More funding could drastically change the quality of our games,” she says. The European Union, Research Council, UK, and other funding agencies in UK fund their projects.
Blended and game-based learning is more effective than traditional or e-learning. Students are moving towards multi-modal learning with online videos, texts, games, MOOCs, etc.
“Teacher-led learning will always be relevant,” she says. “But then, scaling up becomes an issue. Supplementing teacher-led learning/ blended learning is definitely a better option. That said we do need to see more investment coming from the public and industry sector to create imaginative learning environments.” Sara believes g-MOOCs (game-based MOOCs) can significantly affect the completion and retention rates that are prevalent in the online learning scenario. She doesn’t believe games will fizzle out in the near future. Instead, she thinks it’s an exciting phase in education where we will witness a change in learning approaches. “Games will assist in informal learning, lifelong learning, professional learning and retraining. The movement will be more widespread and will help make learning fun and accessible to all,” she says.
The Indian Perspective
Prof Souvik Mukherjee, assistant professor at the Dept of English, Presidency University, Kolkata, is a game researcher with an interest in video games as a storytelling media, philosophy of video games and video game paratexts. He is also interested in new media and e-learning. At Presidency, he explores possibilities of developing Game Studies and Digital Humanities. Prior to this, he was engaged in postdoctoral research on cognition, language and emotions at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, and has taught in Nottingham Trent University, worked in e-learning and as Impact Research Fellow (postdoctoral fellowship) at De Montfort University, Leicester. He uses games to teach as well and has seen great results in terms of student response and engagement. He begins, “The field is quite versatile and vast. At the moment I see both the video game industry (which now posts more profits than Hollywood) and games research as growing rapidly in the future. Game-based learning initiatives have gained prominence internationally, although not in India as yet. Globally, however, I think that this might be an important career option to watch out for. In India, too, given the large base of mobile users, this would potentially be an effective way of disseminating education.” The IT University, Copenhagen, and Georgia Tech University, Atlanta, USA would be places to consider, but Game Studies is now a popular discipline in many universities the world over.
To Mukherjee, games are, in themselves, an important storytelling medium and he feels that they deserve an academic/critical focus in their own right. “I have used video games to teach various aspects of literary studies, such as Assassin’s Creed to teach the Renaissance and Rome: Total War to talk about the Roman Empire and about imperialism in general. At the Centre for Professional Learning and Development at Nottingham Trent University, UK, I was involved in teaching the best practices of e-learning and the use of digital tools.”
This is still a young area in India and not many places offer it yet. However, Presidency University, Kolkata, has plans to start relevant courses and is piloting an optional course for students from all departments. Jadavpur University has already started a diploma course for postgraduate students.
Evidently, engaging players in simulated situations that require them to solve day-to-day problems, encourage collaboration to complete complicated tasks, think creatively, come up with innovative solutions and along the way, learn many of the concepts in a fun way is great for learning. The increasing body of work around the world proves just that. Recent data from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA, 2013) and the EU (Newzoo Report 2012), show growth in the amount of time parents spend playing games together with their children, and that almost all kids (91 per cent) play games in one form or another.
While it might take a little more time for the concept of blended learning to be accepted world over, the time may also be fruitful in giving us positive results for work done so far. Institutionalised learning spaces can explore new ground in motivating their teachers and students while commercial and independent developers can research the effects of games on learning, as well as develop games. The future classrooms will be defined by creativity and activated by varying styles of game play, from sandbox or puzzle style games, to those involving action, adventure and role-play. The hope is that the best of both worlds collide to make learning entertaining for our children.