Apr 14 2008

Video Games and Learning

Don't be so quick to dismiss today's multiplayer virtual games as merely fun.

As a member of the “Pac-Man” generation, I approached my first homework assignment in my master’s degree class, Education Media Design and Evaluation, with a healthy mix of curiosity and trepidation. Assigned to enter the virtual world of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” game, I was apprehensive about what would be expected of me and completely ignorant of the virtual experience.

Video game is a modern misnomer; this interface is not merely seen, it is also experienced. Gaming is no longer a one-two combination of joystick and fire button, the manipulation of which controlled a generic character through predictable trials. These characters have been replaced by avatars — highly personalized and customizable online identities. Their action paths are an extension of your choices and are rarely linear. With current 3-D animation, you don’t play the game as much as you explore, test and uncover variables in a purposefully dynamic environment.

After creating my avatar, Molly Redmorrigan, I was assigned a series of tasks to begin my clumsy attempt at survival. As I bumped into old wooden barrels, the sides of ships, giant rocks and tropical shrubbery, other players whizzed by on their respective missions. Occasionally I would stumble upon a shipwrecked sailor who would try to point me in the right direction. (Imagine my shock when he spoke directly to me.)

I had played enough games of “Pitfall!” as a child to know that I needed to jump over the ominous black scorpions and run as far in the other direction as possible. While others bravely drew their swords against enemy pirates, I successfully avoided combat by launching myself into the water. Ultimately, I landed in jail where I was advised to recuperate (undoubtedly a merciful design tactic for the inept).

Fortunately, we are not being graded on our ability to thrive (or merely survive, as the case may be) in a virtual world. We are, however, being challenged to explore a foreign environment and appreciate its educational potential. When students habitually forgo traditional homework assignments in favor of video gaming, it might not be laziness after all; my artful escapes at confrontation in “Pirates of the Caribbean” resulted in a mental exhaustion no worksheet could impart.

Letting Linear Go

So what is it about video games these days? According to researcher Eric Jensen, the human brain is programmed for survival, not formal instruction. “Many educators unknowingly inhibit the brain’s learning ability by teaching in an ultralinear, structured and predictable fashion,” Jensen writes in his 1995 book, Brain-Based Learning. In other words, chaos is ideal, even natural, for learning.

As a classroom teacher, I often organize essential facts and information in a way that is logical to me, creating the basis for my lesson plans. Jensen would argue that this common practice is actually brain-antagonistic for my learners because I’m providing overly processed information within a linear scope. Topic-based information is better offered in a naturally existing, unaltered way, or with deliberate randomness that forces students to find meaningful patterns. Video games tap our instinct for survival while replicating the chaotic nature of existence.

In addition to the manipulation of chaos, Jensen recommends that a teacher double or even triple input and stimulation in order to maximize learning. We remember only 10 percent of what we read and 20 percent of what we hear, but 50 percent of what we simultaneously see and hear. Memory jumps to 80 percent when involving personal experience. Genuine experience includes meaningful physical movement as well, which incorporates even more parts of the brain essential in cognition. Video games simulate movement while demanding quick decision-making in an intense audio-visual environment. Conversely, traditional classrooms involve students only passively, through lecture and note-taking, for example.

Every brain is different, except in its need to survive and its ability to process large amounts of simultaneous, disorganized information, Jensen says. Therefore, when students inevitably ask, “Why do we have to learn this?” their brain’s instinct for survival is at work, distinguishing essential versus nonessential information. Furthermore, the inability to remember information is too often mistakenly equated with laziness or lack of motivation by the learner.

Diving Inside Games

When considering how your brain naturally engages in learning, we can start to see how video games transcend their relegated role of leisure activity. Because my résumé as a “gamer” lacks credibility, I spoke with an expert. Jeff Aquino is a senior at Canastota (N.Y.) High School and is well known for the hours he spends in virtual worlds. First, he addressed the misconception that video games promote social isolation: “I’m never alone. I have a virtual group of friends that is really like a second family. We socialize and get along, but it’s more than that. We cooperate, plan and strategize to meet objectives in the game.”

Although virtual, this is a cooperative learning interface that relies on very real relationships. In fact, Aquino said he sometimes feels more isolated in the classroom when sitting quietly at his desk while “being taught.” “Learning from school is stagnant. In the games, you have to constantly adapt to survive. It’s constant thinking and quick decision-making.” As he detailed some of the impressive successes he has experienced online, I had to wonder how traditional classroom lessons could compete for a digital native’s attention.

I am not a programmer; the daunting task of building comparable virtual experiences makes me want to throw myself in the pirates’ jail. Thankfully, according to Aquino, teachers don’t have to compete, but we might want to comply. Late nights playing “World of Warcraft” actually helped him better understand economic concepts in his social studies class. In fact, in my next article, Aquino is going to walk us through some virtual terrain that has aided his understanding of a variety of classroom concepts. In the meantime, I’ve got some playing — I mean, homework — to do.

Katie Hanifin is a teacher at Canastota (N.Y.) Junior/Senior High School.