Video Games as Educational and Training Tools?

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Can video games be taken seriously? Can they be used effectively as training tools? Some scientists and educators think that they can. Let's have a look…

Video games are available today to teach children their numbers, ABCs, etc. Game elements are sometimes also incorporated in other educational software, such as that designed for language learning. But what about high-end, graphic-intense games? Could these be used by mainstream educators? And for older students?

Billions of dollars are spent annually on entertainment software, and perhaps surprisingly to some, not all of this money is spent on games for children. Past generations of children put away the toys of childhood when they became adults. This has not been the case for the video game generation.

Perhaps video games can be compared to football, basketball, or baseball, which often get relegated to weekend recreation, but not discarded, when boys grow into men. There have been numerous studies to determine the emotional, mental, and physical effects of video games on players.

In 2005, scientists and educators seemed to decide that if you can’t beat them, join them. According to the Fact Sheet for the National Summit on Educational Games, in October of that year, nearly 100 experts met in Washington DC to discuss ways to ‘accelerate the development, commercialization, and deployment of new generation games for learning’.

The participants included executives from the video game industry and education software publishers, researchers and experts on technology and pedagogy, game developers, representatives from user communities such as teachers and the U.S. military, R&D funders, and government policy makers.

The summit focused on four primary issues. It examined the relationship between video games and learning. Specifically, how are the skills required in video games similar to those used in the real world? Could other aspects of the learning process be supported by video games?

These questions are related to another issue discussed at the summit―the need for additional research. It’s easy to say that video games develop problem solving skills and analytical thinking (or quick reflexes).

You might also say that they train a person to work under pressure or as part of a team. But how do you quantify these effects? What aspects or features are important, and how do you maximize any perceived benefit?

In addition to these technical considerations, the summit also examined the economic and social barriers standing in the way of the widespread implementation of video games and simulations in learning, and what the government, industry, and educational community can do to overcome these barriers.

Educational institutions are often very tradition bound. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even from an educational standpoint. As the saying goes―if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Traditional teaching methods work. Maybe games and simulations do too; maybe they don’t.

With their negative reputation, coupled with little hard evidence of their efficacy, video games seem like a big risk to many. In addition, computers are expensive. In some cases, even if the support were there, the infrastructure isn’t. Developing video games is also very expensive.

Without widespread support and commitment from educators, developing educational video games with the same quality as those sold for entertainment seems like a risky venture. Because of this, the summit discussed ways that government, industry, and the educational community can work to overcome these social, economic, and technological problems.

Unlike some studies or reviews, the participants at this summit weren’t just killing time. The things said weren’t just empty words. The summit was sponsored by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the Entertainment Software Association, and the National Science Foundation.

If you go to the FAS website, you can see how serious they are about promoting this concept. There, you will find three downloadable educational games. Discover Babylon teaches players about the diverse contributions of the Mesopotamian region.

Immune Attack introduces basic concepts of human immunology to high school and entry-level college students. Multi Casualty Incident Response is a training software for teams of firefighters.

In our modern world, the line between game and education has become blurred. It has long been argued that learning should be enjoyable, some might even say fun. This might make the tradition bound cringe, yet there is ample evidence that students learn more effectively when they enjoy the process.

Is the incorporation of video games in education and industry carrying this principle too far? Or will this speed up and deepen the educational and training process? Perhaps only time will tell.
~ By Earl Hunsinger

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