I was interviewed recently for an article on 1up.com about the use and value of games in higher education. It’s a great article written by Bob Mackey, who knows his stuff. I’m quoted alongside Drs. Len Annetta and James Paul Gee. That was flattering and humbling. You’ll note that I don’t have a Wikipedia page.

If you’ve come here from the article and haven’t been to my blog before, please check out some of my favorite posts below:

Games in education

Looks at individual games

A couple of literature reviews that I’m drawing on for a research proposal are also online for your edification.

Finally, if you’re interested in reading more about my general thinking on games in education, here are my full answers to Bob’s questions.

Why did you decide to focus on video games as the subject of your course?

I see incredible potential in games for the future of people learn and teach. There is a lot of scholarship and research out there that speaks both to why games are great at helping people to learn, and to specific ways that games have been used to teach both in and outside of schools. Non-interactive media including printing, television, radio and film have had revolutionary impacts on education, and interactive media like games and simulations will be no different in that respect.

On a personal level, I’m interested in how games can be used to teach because I love games, and because I’ve learned from games myself. I grew up playing games like The Oregon Trail and Number Munchers in computer class. The first time I ever picked apart a complex story to look for things like symbolism and character motivation, it was the plot of a game, not a book or a movie. Playing games got me interested in computers and technology, in marketing, writing and graphic design. Games were a gateway to a lot of passions in my life.

Can you give me a brief overview of the course that you taught, along with your basic objectives?

I am the teaching assistant for a graduate-level course called “Educational Gaming and Simulations,” which is taught by Dr. Betül Özkan. The course is part of the Educational Technology program out of the University of Arizona South. It’s a two-year program that terminates in an M.S. degree. The program is entirely online, which is a growing trend in higher education. Many of the students work full time in education or military training, and a few work in IT at the University, so there is a wide range of backgrounds and knowledge that they bring to the course. Many were not familiar with games (or with modern games) before the course, while others are avid gamers.

The course is designed to do several things. First, we want to provide students with an introduction to educational games and game-like simulations from an educational theory and instructional design point of view. Among other things, that means finding the ways that games already match up with what we consider strong models for education. For example, think of how games move from the simplest mechanics to the more complex during the course of the experience. That’s solid pedagogy in the classroom as well. We also want students to have the tools to evaluate games themselves and to see how those games can be plugged into an existing curriculum, so that they can look at a game like Civilization IV and say “this could work as a conversation-starter in my middle school classroom when we’re studying international relations.” Finally, we want to drive home the idea that games are here to stay, so we’d better find ways to make them a positive thing for education.

Which specific games did you use in your course? Why did you choose these games?

The only game that we asked all students to play was World of Warcraft. We chose WoW because it’s a great introduction to MMOs as a genre and as a technology, and because it’s fairly approachable for a game of its complexity. MMOs are very interesting to a lot of academics because that social piece, which is a big part of learning, is built right in.

We also provided students with a list of games to play and then submit an analysis of, using an evaluation sheet that we provided. Each student chose one game. The sheet was designed to help them look at things on a granular level that I think a lot of gamers are comfortable with, but that people who don’t play games probably don’t see at first. We asked them to identify things like genre, specific game mechanics, platform and visual perspective, in addition to more education-specific aspects of the game. That list included games like America’s Army, Animal Crossing, Rock Band 2, Fable 2, Sims 2, Spore and Civilization IV. We chose games that had at least one of three characteristics: either they were designed to get a message or information across to the player; or they had immediate potential for use to teach a common school subject; or else they were a great example of a kind of game that people who want to teach using game should be familiar with.

One student asked for special permission to analyze Dead Space, which he concluded was not a great fit for the classroom, although he found the gravity-free sections interesting for their physics.

Can you give me a few examples of assignments and activities you created for your course?

In addition to the WoW and game analysis activities I mentioned above, activities included lots of reading of academic literature about games in education, and responses to discussion questions about those readings. Students were also required to write a literature review about a question within the field that interested them, and those were interesting. One student picked the question of why players of MMOs switch genders, and how often they do so; others were Army instructors who looked at the evidence that games can effectively help to train soldiers. The course is still ongoing so students haven’t yet completed the final project, which will be to submit a detailed plan for integrating a game or simulation into a realistic curriculum.

Did you face any resistance from students or faculty unaccustomed to video games as a subject of academic study?

As a gamer, I’ve seen the same instances of misinformation and negativity about games in mass media that we all have. I expected to encounter some skepticism about games as a teaching tool. Surprisingly, that was not at all what I found. I’ve seen much more enthusiasm, many more students saying “this is valuable, this is the future,” than saying “I don’t see the value in this.” I think there are several reasons for that. One reason that there is a strong case in the academic literature for video games and related interactive technologies. Another key reason is that teachers are passionate about finding new ways to reach students. Teachers see these classes full of students who are plugged in (or wireless) and floating in a sea of information and connectivity most of the day. Even if the teachers themselves are not tech-savvy—and many of them are—they realize that asking those students to just pretend it’s 1950 when they’re in the classroom will never work.

Where I have seen doubt, and where I am myself more skeptical, is where you have to answer the tough questions about using games in real-life situations. It’s not hard to come up with a hypothetical situation in which Half-Life 2 is included in a survey course about dystopian literature. When you have a working teacher in the U.S. with a classroom full of 3rd graders who he or she has to teach about the three branches of government, then you run into practical problems: money, time, the number of computers in the classroom, state standards, game difficulty, the relevance and appropriateness of the game content. That’s where there is still hard work to be done.

Can you give me a general statement about the importance of studying video games in an academic context?

As a culture, we’ve decided that it is important not to take the world around us for granted. That means that we examine all sorts of things—technologies, politics, religion, fiction, chemicals, the environment—in a variety of ways. Video games are something new under the sun, and they’d be worthy of study just for that reason. Of course, there’s much more to them than that. Games are interesting because they can be looked at through so many lenses: there are the technologies that make them possible, the culture that has evolved around them, and the new modes of storytelling and communication that they make possible, just to name a few. Much has been written on this subject, much more eloquently than this. I would encourage anyone interested in how games can be used in education to read some essays by people like James Paul Gee, Marc Prensky, Kurt Squire, John Kirriemuir and Henry Jenkins.