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January 22, 2008

Games in the Classroom: Morality Through Gaming

I had about fifteen various posts that I created, and then deleted, on this topic.

Originally, I had planned on writing about the new role of games in the classroom (ultimately what my paper is about), but that kept getting modified. I went from this idea to that idea back to this idea and then back to that idea. I kept changing my thesis and finding new material.

Ultimately, I ended up in about the same place I began.

Generational differences occur in the classroom, whether we want to believe it or not. We can all remember to a time in grade school (or even at university) where we have run into the difficulties of butting heads with a professor or classmate because of generational differences. I experience it on a daily basis at my job, as I work with people younger than me and people 45+ years older than me.

Think back to a time in your own education when you were faced with a generational difference. Maybe it was a squabble over music. If a teacher ever said about "you kids with your Pac-man video games and Dan Fogelberg records, well, you would look at them funny and ask who Dan Fogelberg was. Perhaps you experienced a difference with a teacher on politics. Imagine you were a raving liberal who went head-to-head with an Irish Catholic Conservative born after his/her daddy got home from WWII...

Whoa, I just had a momentary lapse into my own high school days.

These small moments can shape our opinions and our ideas about our teachers. That isn't to say we wouldn't mock a certain professor we've all shared about a his use of a certain pack that can be slung around the fanny. While the fanny pack may not stand as a great generational divide, it does, however, present an interesting point of, ahem, discussion. While some can joke and some take offense, it shapes everyone's minds about a person. Just as an ignorance to youth culture, when being wielded in front of the youth, can be a dangerous thing.

Consider the following: Did you ever play honest-to-goodness videogames in your classes in school? I'm not just saying things like Math Blaster and Oregon Trail (click here and see the updated version of the Oregon Trail, now starring college slackers!)

Do you feel you would have been more interested in the material being discussed if games had been involved? What if your teachers had used a videogame in lieu of using a video or filmstrip or PowerPoint presentation?

Maya Kadakia wrote in her essay, "Increasing Student Engagement," for TechTrends journal, she noted that simply by implementing videogames, specifically "The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind," the students were immediately engaged, if not slightly frightened and skeptical of a videogame being used as a learning tool. The students “asked questions about the game, the character and what we were going to do — far more questions than usual” (31), which is indicative of a higher level of involvement than a normal class would present.

Likewise, John Beck found similar themes indicating “games teach players that the world is a competitive place, and standing still won’t get you anywhere” as well as a somewhat carpe diem mentality, and when presented with an option or set of choices, “take one and see what happens. Whoever you run into along the way will either be a friend or an obstacle - it's up to you to try and figure out which one and what effect they'll have on you” (32).

In Kadakia's study, though, she found numerous useful instances of morality and the importance of choice in a game as a means of relating it to both personal life as well as academic studies. As she began to implement the games into the classroom, she assigned the class "to write a persuasive paragraph relating to the choice which had been introduced to characters in Morrowind that day. Three moral choices were covered this way: stealing, joining a group (i.e., cliques and gangs), and permanent choices (life has no reset button)" (30-31). One of the situations established was the idea of stealing, in which the moral dilemma was presented to class which became a discussion topic for the day: is stealing ever permissible?

If the class were entering into the unit on Crime and Punishment, using a game like "Morrowind" becomes the subject exemplar - the player can steal almost anything, but there is a price to be paid. You might get away with the theft, but you may also get caught by the Imperial Guards and be given yet a more significant choice: pay a fine, go to jail, or fight the guard until death befalls one of you. Obviously, one can relate this to the trials Raskolnikov faces in the text. Or, one could use a game like "Morrowind" when introducing a mythology chapter, as many of the various races and creatures and be likened to the creatures of lore in Mythology, only this time it allows the students to encounter them first hand.

Of course, educational games, too, have their place. I don't wish to say they are only designed and should be used on younger children. A game like "Math Blaster," yes, is for younger audiences. Games like "9:05," or the "Colossal Cave Adventure" are much more in tune with more developed brains as they rely on syntactic systems, universal grammars, logical question/answer input/output, and a firm understanding of language.

As you may have noticed, my concentration has fallen squarely into the English domain. As I have been training in Secondary English ed, I tend to make these various synaptic connections, but one can easily find games for all variety of subjects. Games such as "Command and Conquer" or even online versions of old board games such as "Risk" can be used in a history class to help students understand the importance of strategy and deployment in war. Students can play a game like "The Oregon Trail" in a social studies or a math class, as it largely relies on the patterns that Koster so often discussed.

As videogames have moved into the mainstream from a niche market, it is becoming more and more difficult to ignore their importance. Even if you do not plan on becoming a teacher, you may plan on becoming a parent some day (if you aren't already) and there is a high probability that your child will have an interest in games. It is your responsibility to know what they are playing. There is nothing to say you can't play with them.

While the games have certainly developed a place in the mainstream, there is always a drawback, too. Not all games are excellent examples of high society. While games like "The Elder Scrolls" series can deeply develop critical thinking skills in the player, making them associate causes and effects, games like "Grand Theft Auto," while amazingly fun to play, do not necessarily encourage strong morals. When a game outright encourages the murdering of police and abuse of women and stealing and violence, it is hard to defend it as a pinnacle of society. However, that doesn't mean the game is a bad example all around, as it quickly can be turned into a "this is not how you want to be..." situation. Perhaps I am showing my age some, but one can easily turn a game like that into an ABC After-school special. Sure, it may not have that wonderful Scott Baio action in it, but it serves the same purpose when managed by responsible hands.

The danger lies in the hands, though. A new game in the hands of a generational deficient is just as dangerous as a gun in the hands of a madman. While an older teacher may feel they have caught the winds of change in their sails and begin bringing games into the classroom, they must understand what games they bring in.

Recently MIT hosted a conference on gaming in the classroom where it was "noted that kids he has talked to say they do well in school, but what they’re teaching themselves at home about digital software is "what will prepare them for the future."

A study conducted in the UK, sponsored by Electronic Arts and FutureLab, found "59% of teachers would consider using off-the-shelf games in the classroom while 62% of students wanted to use games at school." The study "surveyed almost 1,000 teachers and more than 2,300 primary and secondary school student."

Edutopia, part of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, makes the claim that Video games, once confiscated in class, are now a key teaching tool. If they're done right.

Of course, as a young professional, it is easy for me to speak from my pedestal. I don't have a classroom all to myself (yet), and I am not setting the curriculum. It isn't as easy as a snap of the fingers to implement games into the classroom. In fact, it can be a downright logistical nightmare. That doesn't mean, however, that I should short-change my students because of a little adversity. If it can get the students to think more or deeper on a subject, then my job is done.

As Dr. Lettrich always reminds us - we are all agents of change. We can implement these changes. We just have to have the will.

Posted by KevinMcGinnis at January 22, 2008 10:22 PM

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