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Serious games might sound like a contradiction in terms, but in fact, video and computer games are increasingly being adapted for the classroom.
The idea is to make learning more interactive and engaging. The phrase “serious games” originally refered to things like cards and board games but now it increasingly means computer games with an educational slant. But can gaming really be educational? Can it really compete with commercial games for young people’s attention? We asked some experts.
In the US, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, one of the world’s most prestigious and advanced universities when it comes to technology, the day starts with a roll of the dice or a hand of cards. The Game Lab is where professors and students are developing new serious games.
Zachary Sherin, an undergraduate student, explained: “Certain types of education, the old ones using text books are being shoved aside by new, interactive media. Games have an incredible potential to gather people’s interest in topics that they might not otherwise enjoy.”
Zach helped develop “A Slower Speed of Light”, a videogame which explains the theory of relativity by enabling gamers to experience it. He tole euronews: “It’s very hard to intuitively understand how the world would change by travelling at the speed of light. The game does a good job of letting us see what it might look like.”
The term Serious Games was first coined in the US by author Clark C. Abt in 1970, but with the advent of IT the possibilities are constantly evolving.
Steven Scirra, a graduate student explained: “Lots of people think: ‘Oh look, there are millions and millions of people out there who love video games! If we can capture that audience by developing a game with serious content, then we can help people learn!’ I think this is backwards. You need to know why you are using a game for this topics.”
Postdoctoral researcher Konstantin Mitgutsch, expanded on that: “And that is really tricky because you understand that you have to organise the knowledge in a new way. You cannot just put it onto a game, or just do it the other way around: you have a pretty much fun game and you just add a little bit of knowledge in there.”
Konstantin and Steven are working on a game called Movers and Shakers, which is designed to teach gamers about business ethics. They agree that the challenge is making serious games as attractive as commercial ones.
Kostantin said: “We cannot excuse badly designed serious games anymore. Every boring serious game destroys all the potential of serious games. Because when students, kids and whoever plays that game decide that they don’t like educational games anymore, in that moment, we have lost the battle.”
There is a need for professional artwork and real content according to Sarah Verilli, Game Lab’s Development Director: “We are still learning how people learn from games, because it’s not the same way you learn when you are sitting through a lecture or when you read a book. I don’t think we are going to see education becoming nothing but playing digital games, but I don’t think you can do education with just one method.”
Many countries have not only started using computer games in the classroom, but are also encouraging students to build their own games, even at a very young age. In Scotland, ‘The Consolarium’ is a state-funded centre that aims to encourage educational gaming and game-designing. We visited one school to find out more.
Scotland has its own educational system which is separate – and in many ways different – to the education system in the rest of the UK. ‘The Consolarium’ is one example. It was set up in 2006 to develop educational games.
At one primary school near Edinburgh, six year-olds are learning all kinds of skills while playing games in the classroom.
Jennifer Harvey, their teacher, explained: “Today we are doing a lot of literacy work: so when they are using the Nintendo consoles today they are doing reading with them. So they are wanting to find an egg, help it to hatch and look after it so that the creature can grow, which transfers to real life nurturing skills such as looking after a pet or young children at home. Quite a few of the children in the class have got new babies at home which is also nice for them as they are able to know what babies need.”
When it began, many people were skeptical about the concept of learning through play but over the years they have admitted that the idea works.
Derek P Robertson, an Emerging Technologies Adviser from Education Scotland, said: “We have built up a bank of equipment that can be used in schools. So what we do is we have a national intranet in Scotland called ‘Glow’ and every teacher and every pupil is linked up to this. I have a professional community in ‘Glow’ that teachers can join and then they can access our ‘Get game gear here’ section and see what is available and when. And we have four loan periods in a year.”
Gaming does not just teach soft skills, but also teaches children the writing, reading and maths.
Deputy Head Teacher Marie Hagney is happy with the age target: “I think six is a good age to start doing something like this in school because they have a good grounding of their numeracy and literacy skills. Six is the minimum age that I think it would be appropriate then to use something like the DS in the classroom.”
Learning from playing computer games is not only for school children. In Germany lots of different people benefit from games, including students, people with special needs and even adult professionals.
In Germany, just outside of Berlin, one supermarket uses a game called ‘Virtual Supermarket’ as part of their staff training programme. In the game, it is possible to work your way right to the top and become a manager.
Felix Pfitzmann, an apprentice, explained: “These days customers are increasingly demanding, and there are always new products appearing in the shop. So we need to widen our knowledge in all areas.”
The game reflects the real world and players have to answer questions asked by shoppers like “How can you tell a pineapple is ripe?” The idea is to prepare assistants for the shop floor. (And the answer is by smelling it!)
Martina Walter, the supermarket’s Sales Manager, says it does work: “Gaming motivates staff to learn. It’s a real incentive, people can develop and have a virtual career path during the game. They enjoy playing it and get involved with it. And of course, it’s fun. It makes learning fun.”
In Germany, serious games are also being used in the classroom. One software package features two mice who help primary school pupils learn German syntax and grammar in a fun, engaging way. This is important as German teachers often complain that children arrive in school lacking even basic language skills.
Thomas Schmidt, the CEO of Helliwood Media and Education, told euronews how it works: “We have tried to combine two different worlds. On one hand there is the kids’ world of computer games, apps, and software they know. On the other hand there is our educational approach. What do they need in order to learn German correctly? We looked at things like phonology, syntax and vocabulary. And then we connected those two things.”
As children win at each level, they move up to the next one, and it works so well that over 8,000 kindergartens in Germany, even those for special needs children, are already using the game.
Jana Fenner, a special needs educator, says it popular with the whole family: “When we first started using the tablet in the classroom, we did have some queries from parents. They were concerned about how we would use it, and how often the kids would have access to it. Since then though, it has been widely accepted. The parents even have their own logins and passwords, and some of them even use it at home.”