What do teachers and game designers have in common? According to respected games researcher and linguist James Paul Gee, they are both designers of learning. In the case of good teaching design, the systems they create combine resources, collaborations, mentoring, and tools. Games are one of those tools. Some are educational but most are designed for the entertainment market. The question is, can commercial games really be a legitimate part of a learning system?
Teaching the First World War is a good example. There are a number of video games that use this conflict as a setting for their game play but most are historically inaccurate to some degree or include fictional elements. Like all commercial games, they have to be fun in order to sell. Not surprisingly, most teachers would reject virtually killing people as part of that enjoyment, but games deserve a closer look. They have a place in learning, but it must fit with a teacher’s objectives and the system being designed.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is an emotionally charged 2D puzzler game presented in graphic novel form that tells the interconnected stories of four characters who travel through war-torn Belgium and France. As players progress through the various game challenges, historical facts and collectable objects are unlocked. Despite the fictitious elements in the story, players sense the despair, loss and devastation of the war. Verdun: 1914-1918 is a multiplayer first-person shooter game where players experience simulated trench warfare in a variety of historical battlefields. The authenticity of the settings, uniforms, and weaponry creates a particularly immersive player experience. The futility of the First World War battle strategies and impending sense of inevitable death is well conveyed to players.
There are a number of ways that historical thinking concepts can be developed using these games. One approach is to determine the accuracies and inaccuracies presented in the gameplay using primary source analysis to corroborate or reject the information presented. The ethical judgements and conclusions communicated through the games also provide opportunities to discuss today’s conflicts and reflect upon the degree that our current perspectives have changed or remain the same.
Games offer learning through what Gee calls the situated meaning principle - or learning through action. Contextualized Information is experienced as players actively problem-solve their way through challenges like puzzles, quests, and confrontations. This information becomes meaningful when associated with the images and actions needed to meet a goal. Games are not linear. They allow the player to assume different identities, consider multiple perspectives, and investigate different strategies to solve problems. They provide a context in which to learn, even if that context is a simulation or story.
Perhaps the most direct benefit of games is their ability to stimulate interest on a wide range of topics. Play Valiant Hearts or Verdun and you will find it difficult not be hooked by some event, description, condition, or injustice that increases your curiosity about the First World War. These motivating and familiar tools have currency in the everyday lives of students, who intuitively navigate and understand them. They can be a valuable part of any teacher-designed learning system.
If there is one thing that playing Valiant Hearts: The Great War and Verdun: 1914–1918 has confirmed with me, it is that games live-up to their promise of immersiveness and embodiment extremely well. The process of designing games, with its multiple iterations and rapid prototyping, results in products that enable players to experience events like the First World War in a range of ways that sets them apart from other media. In an industry that now surpasses both music and movies, their popularity is a surprise to no one. Perhaps their effectiveness is more surprising.
Games for learning do not share same scope of interest — especially when they are “imposed” onto students. This does not mean that they are bad, second rate or that teachers should not be using them. In fact, most teachers and students would be surprised at the educational value that they offer. I challenge anyone to play the two games mentioned and not be surprised and enthusiastic about the learning possibilities they envision after doing so.
So here is my question to myself: why invest my time and effort in designing a mobile game for the Vimy Centenary? Me — a neophyte gamer with zero programming skills and only a cursory understanding of game theory and design. My answer is that I get it. I see their value and potential for games in a wide range of educational applications and I recognize the possibilities they hold for learning in the future. Students today spend many hours of their waking days playing games. In the process, they share a cultural literacy that is foreign to most of the teaching generations who drive their education.
Younger generations are now hardwired for design and system thinking but we as teachers have limited resources to leverage these skills. Reading and writing texts will always be primary core literacies but the means by which people experience their lives will continue to change. Education will not be immune. In fact, teachers and researchers are important players in determining how these changes will take place.
Like it or not, games already dominate popular media. If you are still denying or ignoring this fact you have only to look at Virtual Reality (VR). The HTV Vive and Oculus Rift are the leading edge of goggle-like headsets released this Spring that will immerse you in other worlds, responding to your gaze and motions and making you respond to them. Virtual Reality and its senses-overlaying cousin, Augmented Reality (AR) are expected to disrupt the mobile market by $120 billion by as early as 2020 (Dig-Capital, 2016). This new technology will change many industries but the majority of VR applications will be in games.
Ten years from now or sooner, learning games that include Augmented and Virtual Reality will likely be as common place as the students who design them. New curricula should include the multi-literacies that are emerging from these and other new media and technologies.
What am I doing if I am not programming a video game? My project it is an investigation of the game-design process where I will be creating multiple iterations, canvasing the opinions and producing a mobile geogame that does not attempt to replicate entertainment and educational versions. It will likely include elements of student design that build out from the main game and connect with learning activities outside of the game itself. One thing I know: it will change - a lot - before it takes its final form.