Schooling Obama on Games

Ray Huling | 4 Nov 2008 13:00
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Young says that, while differences remain between off-line and on-line instruction, "these differences maybe go in favor of the virtual being more expansive, giving more affordances for activity-based, learner-centered instruction." A gaming environment offers possibilities unavailable in the classroom-entering a Van Gogh painting, swimming the circulatory system of the human body, developing a new economy-and games demand interaction from players. Students don't merely receive information when they learn from games; they act as well, which greatly enhances retention and understanding.

For Professor Young, videogames have vast educative potential because they provide real experiences to learn from. The economy of World of Warcraft is a real economy; the friends you make on-line are real friends. Virtual learning is real learning.

Nonetheless, he remains cautious on the question of whether traditional classrooms will fully embrace learning through games. "Every pedagogical technique that would be at all at variance with a test-prep curriculum," he says, "will get assimilated."

"American education is the Borg in that sense," he warns. "Games will be assimilated."

Of course, challenging received wisdom in education-like our over-reliance on standardized testing-is one of missions of the Video Games and Human Values Initiative. This mission arises naturally out of Travis's own development as a professor.

Gaming had always been a hobby for Travis, but only recently became a subject of his academic work. It wasn't until he noticed parallels between Halo and Virgil's Aeneid that he began to combine modern leisure with classical literature. He worked gaming into his lectures and conference papers, wrote articles for The Escapist, and started his blog, Living Epic.

Bringing a scholar's perspective to gaming also fit Travis's understanding of his role as a professor. Realizing what it means to teach and do research at university took time. "I thought it meant being able to think about what I want to think about," he says. Now, he sees his position as an opportunity "to persuade people to think about their values."

This principle provides the intellectual foundation for the Initiative. The research conducted under the aegis of the program is meant to challenge the thinking of everyone from gamers to educators to Jack Thompson to, possibly, Barack Obama.

Indeed, Travis did hear the good Senator's denunciation live. "I yelped at that," he says. "My wife said, 'He said it!'" Fortunately, Travis and company are well on their way to changing the perception of games as a distraction from education to a core element of it.

Ray Huling is a freelance journalist who lives in Somerville, MA. He thinks games are an important part of a good curriculum and a balanced diet.

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