English teacher Edwin McRae is at war. He’s on a personal crusade to ‘battle the forces of boring education’ by promoting the use of computer games in the classroom.
I created The Fiction Engine, a website about computer games and learning, as a staging ground for a war on ‘boring education’. A war against the sort of schooling that is “…a fundamentally dehumanising experience – 30 kids with their fingers on their lips, not allowed to interact with each other,” as Salman Khan (founder of The Khan Academy) wrote last year.
That’s the sort of school experience I had. And frighteningly, that’s the sort of schooling I’ve seen during my 10 years of teaching, in many different classrooms, in many different schools. Chalk has been replaced with PowerPoint and interactive whiteboards, but the talk-talk-talk-now-copy-this-down experience still reigns.
What’s my solution? Computer games. As a kid I studied the geography, economics, and politics of the Caribbean in the 17th Century. To this day I can still remember where St Kitts, Trinidad, Havana and Florida Keys are, how to make a profit in commodities trading, and how to maintain the morale of a pirate crew. How? By playing Sid Meier’s ‘Pirates!’ on the Atari ST (thefictionengine. com/2012/03/pirates/).
That knowledge was earned through hours of practice and reinforcement. In gaming terms, I honed my skills and knowledge through ‘grinding’. I took in wisdom and then applied it, time and time again. Would I have learned as much through a pen-and-book classroom course on Central American colonial history? Not a chance. My Year 13 History results tell that story.
So, do my students sit around playing Halo and Call of Duty all day? No, definitely not! First person shooters are banned from my classroom. I have yet to find one that’s of educational merit. What my students do is work towards a learning outcome while using games to absorb and reinforce the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve that outcome.
Traits for learning
Why computer games as opposed to more traditional, pen and paper activities? According to Kate McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken, games have four fundamental traits that make them perfect vessels for learning.
The ‘goals’ in games are clear and specific. They focus players’ attention and motivate them with a sense of purpose. The ‘rules’ are there to hinder their path to the goal. Players need to think creatively and strategically in order to overcome the rules and attain the goal. Then there’s the ‘feedback system’ that lets them know how close they are to the goal, or how well they’ve achieved a goal after the fact. And finally there’s ‘voluntary participation’. A game can be entered and departed at almost any time. Players have the freedom of where and when to play, which ensures that the activity continues to feel like play rather than work.
Working in practice
This is all very well in theory but how does this work in practical terms? Allow me to demonstrate with CSI: Web Adventures (forensics.rice.edu), a game based on the TV series CSI that provides several scenarios for learning about forensic science and applying that knowledge. I’ve used it as part of ‘Criminally Good Writing’ Game to Learn unit that I designed for Year 9 and 10 Creative Writing. The final assessment was a piece of creative writing based on a fictional crime scene. In particular, the students needed to show their understanding of the conventions and vocabulary of the crime genre.
How did CSI: Web Adventures help? It gave them a tour around the world of forensic science, and allowed them to get ‘hands on’ with the jargon and tools of crime scene investigation. Firstly, there’s the ‘need to know’ list and then the choice of which area of forensic science to start with on the ‘Checklist. Five ticks and we’ve completed the game. There’s that ‘clear goal’ I was talking about earlier.
Not being afraid of a little gore, we chose to first visit the Medical Examiner, in order to learn how autopsies work, and how an examiner determines the cause of a victim’s death. We followed the instructions, learning about external and internal autopsies. And no sooner have we heard the terms, and we’re putting them into practice. All along the way we’re learning about surgical tools, anatomy, and various causes of death. How? By having to select the right tools to use, complete the right surgical procedures on the correct parts of the body, and by being challenged to identify the cause of death of my patient … ex-patient … hapless cadaver.
There are the ‘rules’ for you, providing challenges and encouraging players to reinforce their newly obtained knowledge by applying it.
How do students know if they’re getting things right? The game tells them, straight away. A little better than waiting for test papers to come back a couple of weeks later from their overworked, underpaid teacher! And what’s more, they can’t continue through the game unless they get everything right.
Why don’t players throw their hands up in frustration and exit out of the game when the going gets tough? They could but the game urges them not to by providing clues and encouragement – and because it’s fun. There’s that ‘voluntary participation’ factor. People want to complete the game because it’s fun and they want the feeling of satisfaction when they finally beat it!
Why not just use a book?
Now, couldn’t students have simply worked off a glossary of forensic science terms whilst writing a crime story piece? Yes, but now that they’ve experienced what it’s like to be a forensic scientist, those terms have context and meaning beyond what could be read on the page. They’ve had to earn this vocabulary through gameplay, so they now value it and are much more likely to want to show it off in their crime story. Not to mention the fact that they can now have a forensic scientist as the main character and be able to accurately show how they go about solving a crime.
CSI: Web Adventures is free and online, like most of the games that I use in the classroom. All a student needs is a computer and internet access.
For the fun of it
What’s the single greatest advantage that computer games have when applied to learning? I’ve been asked this a few times now. I’m going to sidestep that buzzword ‘engagement’ and give a much simpler answer: enjoyment. Students enjoy getting instant ‘feedback’ as they ‘voluntarily’ overcome the ‘rules’ in order to achieve the clearly stated ‘goal’.
Learning and fun have always been a match made in heaven. Just ask your average kid. But somehow, somewhere in the school system, they fell out of love and got a divorce. It’s time they got back together… for the sake of the kids. And I think computer games might just be able to help.
Edwin McRae is an English teacher at Garin College in Nelson.
What do you think?
Is Edwin right? What role should computer games play in the classroom? Let us know your thoughts.