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.