Education

Literature Review: Commercial Video Games In Classroom Education

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This is a review of the literature concerning the use of commercial video and computer games in classroom education. Though focused primarily on academic research published in peer-reviewed journals, the review is supplemented by information available in non-peer-reviewed studies, unpublished academic papers, news stories and other venues. This review is structured to address several key points regarding the pedagogical use of video games. The first section briefly summarizes some of the arguments for the educational use of video games. The second section examines the evidence that commercial games—games created and sold primarily as entertainment products—have pedagogical advantages over games created by educators. The third section describes ways that commercial games are used to teach in the classroom. Finally, the fourth section identifies patterns in the literature and points out opportunities for useful further research. While historical perspectives on this question are interesting, this review focuses primarily on literature from the past ten years.
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  • 1. Max Lieberman May 3, 2009 ETCV510 Professor Sue South Literature Review: Commercial Video Games in Classroom Education Abstract This is a review of the literature concerning the use of commercial video and computer games in classroom education. Though focused primarily on academic research published in peer-reviewed journals, the review is supplemented by information available in non-peer-reviewed studies, unpublished academic papers, news stories and other venues. This review is structured to address several key points regarding the pedagogical use of video games. The first section briefly summarizes some of the arguments for the educational use of video games. The second section examines the evidence that commercial games—games created and sold primarily as entertainment products—have pedagogical advantages over games created by educators. The third section describes ways that commercial games are used to teach in the classroom. Finally, the fourth section identifies patterns in the literature and points out opportunities for useful further research. While historical perspectives on this question are interesting, this review focuses primarily on literature from the past ten years 1. Why Teach with Video Games? Arguments for considering games as pedagogical tools began to appear in the
  • 2. 1980s, following the explosion of the home console game market in first half of that decade. Early work on the subject was largely speculative, as when Toole, Korienek and Lucariello proposed that existing games “meet the requirements of laboratory tasks” for studies of human motor skills (Toole, Korienek & Lucariello, 1983). Other contemporary work studied the ways that games motivate players, finding that the “challenge, fantasy and curiosity” at the heart of many games held “dazzling potential…for educational purposes” (Long & Long, 1984). Silvern was the first to suggest that games were more valuable as simulations in which students could come to understand rules, patterns, hypotheses and systems than as mere “electronic worksheets” (Silvern, 1986). However, the notion that games could be an asset rather than an obstacle to educators was not universally held. In 1985, in a paper histrionically titled Reversing the Literacy Decline by Controlling the Electronic Demons, Shenkman railed against the fact that young children were spending less time reading and more time with electronic media including video games, “ridiculous soaps” and “video rock” (Shenkman, 1985). Shenkman’s focus on video games as detrimental to literacy, and particularly her argument that video game players “are not learning the skills that will help them understand…the complexities of geopolitics” seem positively quaint given the current state of research into the educational value of video games. In the past ten years, the quantity and quality of scholarship on video games, as well as other game-like technologies, in the educational arena has risen dramatically. A search within the Education Resources Information Database for the terms “video game” and “education” returns a total of 125 documents published between 1970 and 1999; the same search returns 191 published since the year 2000. The reasons for the increased
  • 3. interest in pedagogy and video games are not fully clear, but likely include the increased mainstream cultural relevance of video games (now rarely described as a “fad” as they were in the 1980s); the new possibilities opened up by maturing game technology; and the growing number of educators who are familiar with the medium because they grew up playing games. Broadly speaking, the scholarship on video games in education can be broken down into three categories. The first category is speculative or theoretical literature. Writers working in this vein tend to outline the potential educational value of games based on their understanding of the medium, which they connect with some other personal philosophy or established learning theory; this approach is not without value, but it does tend to rely on anecdote and theory rather than on research with real students, games and classrooms. The second category is observational literature. This category includes some real-world research, such as case studies of classrooms in which games are being used to teach. However, observational work tends to be somewhat haphazard in its planning and subjective in its methods of evaluation. The third category is controlled research. This category, much less common than the others in this young field, includes mainly surveys and controlled case studies with quantitatively verifiable results. The theory of “digital nativity” is one of the major arguments for restructuring modern school systems to better incorporate digital content like video games. This theory, the brainchild of game designer and author Marc Prensky, contends that people who have grown up with the Internet and other digital technology at their fingertips are “digital natives” who learn constantly from technology in ways that “digital immigrants” are often unable fully to comprehend (Prensky, 2003, 2005; Annetta, 2008). Prensky’s
  • 4. terminology has gained wide currency with academics concerned with the digital divide, but his theory has also been criticized as a sort of inverse “moral panic” (Vaidhyanathan, 2008). The theory tends to rely heavily on anecdote, as when Prensky quotes a student of his acquaintance as saying of educators, “Don’t try to use our technology…you’ll only look stupid” (Prensky, 2008). Another major argument for the use of video games in education is the notion that playing is inherently a learning process, and that therefore the pedagogical use of games is a natural fit (Annetta, 2008). In order to succeed in the marketplace, a commercial video game must teach players its rules and interface, and must progressively introduce new mechanics in a way that suggests strategy to the player. Linguist and games theorist James Paul Gee contends that the profit motive has helped game developers to hone a “theory of human learning” that rivals “the best theories of learning in cognitive science” (Gee, 2007). There is in fact a remarkable compatibility between the ways that games teach players to pay and the constructivist theories of learning which are currently very much in vogue. Games teach players through experience, requiring them to construct knowledge for themselves (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson & Gee, 2005; Squire, 2006). Sophisticated games frequently train players using methods reminiscent of Vygotsky’s concept of “scaffolding” (Oblinger, 2004; Gee, 2007; Rice, 2007a; Schrader & McCreery, 2007; Annetta, 2008; Lim, 2008; Papastergiou, 2009). Many other arguments for the increased use of video games in education have been advanced. The possibility that games can be used to motivate students is often mentioned (Oblinger, 2004; Squire, 2008; Papastergiou, 2009). Related to the idea of “digital nativity” is the notion that students today will need a different set of skills later in
  • 5. life than previous generations. This concept of “21st century skills” and “new media literacy”—that is, literacy with digital technologies—also comes up repeatedly in the literature (Gee, 2007; Annetta, 2008; Squire, 2008; Papastergiou, 2009). The argument that schools should reflect and incorporate the activities students engage in outside of the classroom is another common thread (Annetta, 2008; Lacasa, Martínez & Méndez, 2008; Lim, 2008). Ultimately, the question of whether video games have a place in the classroom is already settled—games are studied as cultural artifacts, taught to aspiring game designers, and used as simulations, conversation-starters, forums for collaboration and in countless other ways that are not always reflected in the academic literature. Even when teachers are not using games in the classroom, students are: in a 2003 survey, 32% of college students admitted to playing a game unrelated to “instructional activities” during class time (Jones, 2003). What the speculative and theoretical academic writers are doing is constructing frameworks for how best to use games now that they are here. 2. Why Commercial Games? Like entries in other mediums, video games differ greatly from each other in genre, scale, difficulty, setting, tone, cost, quality and other respects. Much of the academic work that has been done to date focuses on video games designed by professional educators, rather than games created to compete for players’ dollars, time and attention. As researchers have discovered, this is a significant distinction. Van Eck identifies three approaches that educators have taken to “digital game-
  • 6. based learning” (Van Eck, 2006). These are to “have students build games from scratch”; to “have educators and/or developers build games from scratch to teach students”; and to “integrate commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games into the classroom.”1 Van Eck concludes that the first approach can be fruitful, but is not generally viable because it requires teachers with specialized technical skill sets, as well as school systems willing to support a nontraditional interdisciplinary project and able to devote the time and resources to large-scale game development. Lim likewise describes major technical, structural, and cultural obstacles to this type of project (Lim, 2008). Van Eck’s second approach appears to hold out the hope of games that “address [education] and entertainment equally, and to do so with virtually any domain,” but the problems here are also significant (Van Eck, 2006). The main hurdle is the incredible concentration of talent and resources necessary to make a game that approaches the quality of commercial offerings. The literature repeatedly mentions the need for educational games to compete with their commercial brethren on fun and production values (Rosas et al, 2003; Lim, 2008; Warren, Dondlinger & Barab, 2008). Tüzün, whose research group designed three games for use in Turkish primary, secondary and higher education, found that teachers “demanded specific content” be included in the games, while students weighed the entertainment value of the games against that of commercial products (Tüzün, 2007). Poor quality graphics and unsophisticated interfaces are often particular sticking points for students (Roubidoux, Chapman & Piontek, 2002; Eikaas, Foss, Solbjørg & Bjølseth, 2005; Rice, 2007b; Simpson & Clem, 2008; Papastergiou, 1 Although the “COTS” nomenclature has been adopted by several researchers, I prefer to refer to commercial games as such, since the acronym ignores the increasing prevalence of digitally distributed commercial games (Martin, 2009).
  • 7. 2009). Will Wright, designer of the games SimCity, The Sims and Spore observes that “All games are educational… Good games are hard to design. But designing a good game around specific subject matter is really difficult” (Prensky, 2008). One advantage of commercial games is that they tend to be more complex than games developed for educational purposes. Prensky makes the case that complex games are far more suitable for education than “mini-games” because they are more immersive and focus more deeply on strategy and decision-making (Prensky, 2005). Several studies make the case that complex games allow players to achieve the state of focused engagement known as “flow” in a way that mini-games never will (Prensky, 2005; Van Eck, 2006). According to Rice, complexity is a prerequisite for a game to “address the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy,” and most complex games “are commercially developed software games” (Rice, 2007a). Other advantages include the availability and relatively low cost of commercial games (Van Eck, 2006; Simpson & Clem, 2008). The primary drawback noted of commercial games as tools for classroom teaching is the dearth of content that can be easily integrated into an existing curriculum (McFarlane, Sparrowhawk & Heald, 2002; Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2004; Van Eck, 2006; Rice, 2007b). Violence and other inappropriate content are particular concerns for teachers working with young students (Rice, 2007b; Simpson & Clem, 2008). Yet there are commercial games that mesh well with educational standards, and creative educators are finding ways to incorporate non-explicitly educational games in surprising ways. 3. How are educators using commercial games in the classroom?
  • 8. Information about how commercial games are being employed in the classroom is available, generally, from three types of sources: government- or nonprofit-sponsored surveys; reports by educators who undertook pilot or case studies; and non-academic accounts, such as news reports, blog posts, and in one case, audio recordings of a college- level course. The available sources are far from uniform in the level of detail they supply about how the games were used in the classroom, but some clear concordances do emerge. Teachers are understandably concerned with the content of video games, and the commercial games used in classroom teaching are often selected because they are easily retrofitted to existing curricular standards. One study described the use of Restaurant Empire, a business simulation game, in a Wyoming 8th grade computer skills course (Simpson & Clem, 2008). The game was selected to conform to state vocational standards, and the activities built around the game focused on the realism of the simulation. A 2002 survey conducted by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) found that games in the SimCity and Rollercoaster Tycoon series were the most common commercial games used by the teachers surveyed (Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2003). SimCity games are frequently cited as appropriate for classes studying civics and city planning (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 2006; Charsky & Mims, 2008). Similarly, games in the Civilization and Age of Empires series are often used to teach history and social studies (Van Eck, 2006; Gros, 2007). Squire’s work with the turn-based historical strategy game Civilization III began with a case study using the game in a 9th grade humanities class studying human cultures (Squire, 2004, 2006, 2008). Squire found that players’
  • 9. knowledge of basic geography and history improved dramatically, and that they became comfortable with the game’s college-level vocabulary. A slightly different example of a commercial game matching school standards is the dance-pad game Dance Dance Revolution, which has been integrated into physical education programs across the United States (Trout & Zamora, 2005; Schiesel, 2007). Another apparent trend is the use of a game to teach skills and subjects that are not inherent to its setting or narrative. Gros, in a well-structured case study, used the historical strategy game Age of Empires II in a social sciences class “while, in parallel, the mathematics teacher used the same game to work on a reading of statistical graphs” (Gros, 2007). Rollercoaster Tycoon games are often used to teach physics and engineering principles despite the fact that these concepts exist only as part of the game’s behind-the-scenes simulation, rather than as an overt game mechanic (Charsky & Mims, 2008). The BECTA Computer Games in Education project, a large-scale case study following on the organization’s 2002 survey of games in education, used several commercial games in interdisciplinary ways (McFarlane et al, 2002; BECTA, 2006). For example, SimCity 3000 was used not as a city simulator, but as a tool to teach 11-16 year- old special needs students about models, simulations and computer interfaces. Other examples from the BECTA study include the use of people simulator The Sims to teach budgeting skills and discuss emotional and relationship issues with the same special needs demographic; the use of soccer management simulation Championship Manager 00/01 to teach 11-13 year-olds about databases; and the use of Age of Empires to teach computer skills and strategic thinking. The researchers found that the games motivated students and provided “powerful learning experiences” by presenting learning
  • 10. opportunities in contexts that were inherently attractive to students. The study further concluded that the role of the teacher “remains crucial” when using games in the classroom: teachers who were not themselves knowledgeable about the games being used had less positive results overall. Some studies have investigated the use of commercial games to stimulate student creativity, often by having students modify the games to create new scenarios, quests, dialogue, art assets and even game mechanics. Neverwinter Nights, a fantasy role-playing game, ships with a robust content development toolset. One Canadian case study tasked high school students in two tenth grade English classes with creating interactive stories using these tools, along with a programming tool of the researchers’ own design (Carbonaro et al, 2007). A British study, conducted as part of a voluntary summer workshop for high school students, also used the Neverwinter Nights tools to enable students to tell interactive stories, and reported strong enthusiasm for the project from participants (Robertson & Good, 2006). Both studies concluded that students found this new form of expression both challenging and rewarding. Even when no element of game modification is involved, games may still be used to aid students with creative expression. Researchers in Spain designed a “multimedia workshop” for children ages 8-9 centered around the action-adventure game Tomb Raider: Chronicles (Lacasa et al, 2008). The students played the game and undertook projects based on the experience, including writing stories, writing and performing a play, drawing pictures and creating web pages. The researchers found that the teacher of the class had a great deal of difficulty with the project. The teacher was unprepared for the enthusiasm that the students showed for the game, and felt that the class was spiraling
  • 11. out of control. The teacher also interpreted the game’s narrative much differently than her students, framing it in terms of a traditional fairy tale (even using the phrase “once upon a time” in her summary of the plot) and focusing far more on the game’s violence than her charges. Overall, the researchers were pleased with the study’s outcomes, arguing that the students employed a “meta-cognitive process” to translate the motives and actions of the game’s heroine Lara Croft into several different mediums. The final and least common model for integrating commercial games into classroom education involves immersing students deeply into a game world. This may be done in order to use the fiction of the game’s narrative to explore real life issues, as was the case with a pilot study undertaken with a 7th grade language arts and social studies class in Wisconsin (Kadakia, 2005). The study introduced the concept of choices and consequences using traditional media (a novel), and then asked the students to play the first-person role-playing game The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind over the course of three days, analyzing the choices and consequences available to players during that time. The instructor behind the project reports that it was “highly successful in raising the engagement level in my classes,” and that students were able both to connect the lessons to their real lives and to distinguish the elements of the game that they perceived as unrealistic. Another, far more ambitious example of this approach was the freshman college English class “Worlds of Warcraft,” offered in 2007 and 2008 at Vanderbilt University. Worlds of Wordcraft incorporated two commercial games into its syllabus: the massively multiplayer onlin
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