Picture yourself in the bustling streets of ancient Rome, weaving your way through the narrow avenues of open space between the tightly-packed crowds of shouting vendors, haggling housewives, and stern centurions. Imagine sitting in the majestic colosseum, eyeing 40,000 Romans just like you who are watching a particularly vicious gladiatorial bout. Now dial it all back a notch — those aren’t real throngs of Romans haggling over produce prices in Latin. They’re avatars, similar in detail to those in Second Life, and nearly every one is being controlled by a 12-year old. And you’re not really sitting in the Roman colosseum — you’re sitting in a classroom, learning the history and culture of an ancient civilization from a video game.
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It makes sense, if you think about it. We’re living in the information age — Twitter spreads messages across a vast network in minutes, millions of people sink time into alternate identities in World of Warcraft and other MMOs, and video games are right in the middle of the burgeoning new media sector, pushing the wave of HD displays and challenging how we interact with technology. So why isn’t that same technological advancement carrying over into the classroom, where textbooks still reign supreme? After listening to one of the co-founders of GameTap, Al Meyers, talk for two hours on Tuesday about his new project ReinventED, I was convinced — video games are an untapped resource for expanding the scope of what our kids learn in the classroom.
Looking back on the implementation of computers and games in my elementary and middle school education, it’s hard to stifle a grin; for the most part, they were laughably terrible. I may have set some kind of legendary high score in Word Munchers back in third grade, and learned from The Oregon Trail that life was rough on the frontier. The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain was another idle pastime, but none of these games did much, in the end, to further our educational development as children. That’s not to say educational games don’t work — Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Learning Company products like Gizmos & Gadgets admirably balanced fun and learning — but if kids were playing these games, chances are it was due to their parents, not their school board.
[[image:090415_gizmosandgadgets.jpg:Remember, the fiberglass body is both lightweight and streamlined.:right:0]]That’s the problem Meyers is getting at — educational games exist, but the technology isn’t being implemented in classrooms. But why not? During the lengthy talk, one simple example stuck in my mind: the most effective way to learn a foreign language is to go to a country where that language is spoken and simply live; what better way to learn history or social studies than to be immersed in a virtual representation of that subject?
If the linear approach offered by textbook learning was ever an effective way for children to internalize information, it simply can’t work as well as it once did. Kids are all about multitasking, balancing tons of sensory inputs: hopping around web pages to absorb a snippet of information here and a fragment there, all the while texting their friends and watching random video clips on YouTube. How do you go from that level of stimulation at home to a textbook at school and stay interested? Well, you probably don’t.
A new take on education isn’t just a cool new option, then — it’s more like a necessary paradigm shift. Meyers’ approach to the issue prioritizes short development cycles using existing middleware engines, episodic installments in the vein of Telltale’s Sam & Max (which he once bagged as an exclusive for GameTap, no less), and, above all, a focus on quality content. The games have to be fun to play for both boys and girls and balance the educational value with a reward system that keeps the little ones engaged. The latter may not be as tough as it initially sounds — Meyers cited the derivative, unoriginal quest design present in WoW and other MMOs as an example of something that’s utterly addictive for millions, despite the general lack of fresh ideas.
Meyers produced a video teasing the potential of his ReinventED startup, though it doesn’t seem to be posted on the web yet. Regardless, he’s used it in presentations and the idea is out, now — but what about actually getting it implemented? That’s a tough one. Even in good economic times, chances are most school boards out there simply aren’t going to understand how effectively video games could be used as teaching tools. He’ll have to start small, just a few schools at a time, in particularly open-minded parts of the country. Sadly, the “teach for the test” model government standards force on teachers provide yet another barrier to educational advancement — even the teachers who are willing to try new things are bound by a system that forces them to keep a very rigid curriculum. It’s depressing to think about how badly the schools are in need of reform, and other countries are doing a much better job — apparently Finland has one rad education system that we need to be taking hints from.
I just hope that if I ever have kids, they’ll have the opportunity to come home and say “Hey dad, guess what game I played at school today?”