Will video games save American education?

No one, but no one, has detected a crisis in the video games industry. But everyone sees a crisis in education. Even teachers. Even geeks. And even manufacturers of video games.

A recent conference at the University of Indiana brought together academics, industry representatives, and teachers to discuss how to bridge the gap between kids' life on-line and their time in the classroom. Ruefully reflecting on the difference between the joy of the joystick and the joy of learning, one teacher at the Ackerman Colloquium asked: "Wouldn’t it be great if kids were willing to put in this much time on... challenging material in school and enjoy it so much?"

And not long ago, the Federation of American Scientists teamed up with the Entertainment Software Association in a conference about harnessing the power of video games for learning. Scientists from the Manhattan Project -- which harnessed the atom to create the A-Bomb -- founded the FAS. Now the organisation creates video games to harness "the potential of emerging information technologies to improve how we teach and learn".

Everyone is worried whether today's youth will have the skills to compete in global labour markets and to service an innovation-based economy. That's why many educators, assisted by the gaming industry, feel that games could save the American economy by turning your playground into your job.

Children and teens spend hours upon hours with on-line games, especially MMORPGs-- massive multi-player on-line role-playing games. According to the FAS, an average high school student spends about 316 hours a year gaming and 126 hours in the classroom. At the same time, fewer and fewer children are graduating from high school and many are dropping out. Attention spent on studies is dropping and teachers are struggling to get students to learn the necessary materials to pass state tests. Why not leverage this popular technology to revitalise education?

"The success of complex video games demonstrates games can teach higher order thinking skills such as strategic thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, and adaptation to rapid change. These are the skills US employers increasingly seek in workers and new workforce entrants. These are the skills more Americans must have to compete with lower cost knowledge workers in other nations," says the FAS.

Really? Let's take a look at what the scientists claim.

In some areas, using gaming technology can and does produce results. Indiana teacher David McDevitt, for instance, uses games to teach history to his students. The technique is well-received by the students and does achieve great success. Simulation-based learning can work well to develop understanding of complex relationships. Similar gaming techniques are used by the Pentagon in war-planning and war studies as well, so the fit between history and gaming for simulation purposes works.

However, it would be dangerous to exaggerate the usefulness of technology. American education is in trouble for reasons that have little to do with the presentation of material. Test scores have been slumping for decades, long before the internet existed. Many indicators show that people were better educated decades ago in times before the world wide web.

The FAS report rhapsodises over the potential for on-line gaming to foster the skills employers are looking for. But it fails to note how the same technology has also impaired the skills employers are looking for.

Consistently, written communication skills rank highly with employers. in my view, more than any other single factor, the spell-check feature in Microsoft Word has ruined students' written communication skills by encouraging them to be lazy spellers and ignore grammar. Text messaging and instant messaging has made it even worse. I remember a Scottish schoolgirl's essay about her summer holidays: "My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kids FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc." Now what sort of job has her cell phone prepared her for?

The main problem is that while kids may spend over 300 hours a year on gaming, the reasons behind that gaming are not easily (if at all) transferable to education. For instance, virtual community sites are forms of on-line games where people create characters to interact with others in a sterile and perfect little world.

The motivations behind people disconnecting from real society to log into fake on-line worlds deserve to be studied by psychologists, but escapism figures highly in such activity. How can this be harnessed for education?

One of the main drivers of the debate is simply a love of the latest fad. As someone who has worked in technology for years, I can testify that every few months there is something new that's going to "revolutionise" everything. The dot-com era was bulging with such promises. When 98 per cent of them were shown to be completely empty, we got the dot-com bust.

Web 2.0 and these internet technologies and games are the Next Big Thing. Applied in the right way, they can be a great help. But it needs be driven by fact and not by hype. Mitch Kapur, CEO of Linden Labs, the manufacturer of Second Life, an on-line game with about 9 million registered players, believes that MMORPGs have "the potential to fundamentally change how humans interact" and may even "accelerate the social evolution of humanity."

If the Next Big Thing will change everything, what is there left for the Next Next Big Thing to do?

While Mr Kapur can be forgiven his energy as he works for a company that makes money on such marketing buzz, a more sober look needs to be taken at the state of internet games. As a blogger and technologist, I agree that MMORPGs and internet gaming could change how humans interact.

But accelerating the social evolution of humanity? Pull the other one. I wonder if Mr Kapur has even logged into an MMORPG, or for that matter, if he has been on the internet much.

While there are some bastions of civil conduct on-line, for the most part the internet and gaming world is a brutal place. Most political columnists say that trying to have an intelligent discussion on-line is a non-starter. Blogs have done far more to degrade political discourse than to democratise the discussion. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft cater to the aggressive tendencies of mankind. If anything, MMORPGs and the rest of the internet have done more for devolution than evolution.

The Federation of American Scientists complain that schools are reluctant to adopt tools with unproven efficacy. Well, I say "bully for them!" Much more research is needed before the future of American school kids should be entrusted to massive multi-player on-line role-playing games. But, still, events like the Ackerman Colloquium and the FAS Summit on Educational Games are good start. As long as we move forward in a reasoned and sober way, our children will be better prepared for a changing world.

is a freelance columnist and blogger at Part-Time
. He also writes for several other popular websites such as BC Magazine and the Internet Storm Center.


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