Gaming for Grades

The following is a sentence that no one is likely to have heard before: “Jimmy, your homework for this week is to finish playing Neverwinter Nights and be prepared to talk about it on Monday.” To many, this request would seem odd and out of place, especially coming out of the mouth of a high school teacher. Simply put, videogames are not fit for use in the classroom.

Or are they? Not so many years ago, the answer would have been “no.” Today however, with changing technologies and attitudes, the answer can be a resounding “yes.” When I was earning my Bachelor of Education degree, I learned a number of things, the first and foremost was that the classroom is changing.

The kids, the material and the technology in the classroom are all evolving. This is leading teachers to alter their styles and approaches. Classrooms need no longer be places of dusty text books and chalkboards. Instead, the presence of TVs, DVD players, LCD Projectors and computers all contribute to making the classroom a more effective and interesting environment. This environment is meant to appeal to students who live in a digital world and rely on their computers for everything from entertainment to communication.

These changes are forcing teachers to reevaluate their teaching strategies. While some teachers resist this change and continue to teach using chalkboards and film strips, others are moving right along with the times. Chalkboards and overhead projectors have been replaced by PowerPoint presentations, film strips have been replaced by videos, DVDs and movies. Even traditional morning announcements are moving toward a video format more reminiscent of the evening news than the scratchy-sounding voice of the principal, projected from an old loudspeaker. Students are getting a more interactive and media-driven experience. The trick for teachers lies in trying to evaluate the educational benefit of introducing these new technologies into the classroom.

In the proper context, videogames can be used as teaching tools in almost any subject area. It is the stigma that is attached to videogames that has kept them out of the classroom for this long. For a long time, computer and console games have been largely viewed as an entertaining waste of time. On the surface, that might even be true. However, if you look a little bit deeper, there is a great deal of benefit to be found.

First, and most obviously, is the substantial amount of games that are educationally motivated. These are games that were created to teach. I remember that the first game ever to show up in my classroom was in 1991. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? was a successful game, that created the foundation for a very strong franchise. Players followed historical and geographical clues in order to track down the elusive criminal. The benefit for the classroom was obvious. The value of the educational genre of games has never been in question. It is the value of other games, games which were not developed with learning in mind that concerns me.

Games that don’t carry an overtly educational message are almost entirely overlooked by educators, and that is the problem. Games like Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, Sid Meier’s Civilization and Age of Empires, all games that were created solely for entertainment purposes, have a place in the classroom alongside the Carmen Sandiegos of the gaming world. The trick is to prove to teachers, students, administrators, politicians and parents that there is a benefit to using these games as classroom tools.

In almost any English classroom, teachers will guide students through the sometimes complicated world of storytelling. It might be something relatively simple like plot structure (beginning, middle and end), or something more complex like genre or voice. Using games, teachers could enhance a student’s understanding of any of these, or a hundred other terms that come up in the study of English Literature. No one is trying to argue that books should be replaced in the classroom by their videogame counterparts. Books are the foundation of an English program and still belong there.

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Despite Egon Spengler’s assertion in 1984’s Ghostbusters that print is dead, books continue to be published, produced and studied. Some time ago, however, it was decided that films could be used in the English classroom as a companion to the more traditional books. It started out with students watching “movie versions” of the books that they read in class, and moved on to watching films and analyzing them as their own separate pieces of fiction, using terms and techniques that were learned in class and applying them to the movie. “Who is the protagonist of The Matrix?” “What is the climax of Titanic?” “To what genre does Chinatown belong?” These are completely acceptable teaching methods. No administrator or parent would think twice about teachers using films in this way, but if you replaced those titles with Final Fantasy X, Neverwinter Nights and F.E.A.R., someone would undoubtedly question your methods.

When all is said and done, though, the question remains as to how the answers: “Neo,” “When the ship sinks” and “Drama” are any more correct and of any more value than the answers: “Tidus,” “When Aribeth turns to evil” and “Horror/Suspense.” Both sets of answers show that the students understood the meanings of the terms they have been taught, as well as the texts that they were presented with. Both sets of answers meet the desired outcomes and requirements to be of valid use in the classroom, yet only one has gained widespread acceptance.

The value of videogames in school is not limited strictly to the English classroom. Other “mainstream” games could be of use in other courses. The History classroom, for example, can be a frustrating place for some students. With lots of dates and specific details to learn, the subject can become dry and lifeless. Fortunately, History may be the course with the widest variety of entertaining games at its disposal.

From first-person shooters to real-time strategies, game after game has been created with history in mind, allowing players to take part in some of the biggest events of the past. The Battlefield series, for example, allows players to take part in real-world conflicts. Battlefield: Vietnam even makes good use of its loading screens, playing music of the period and giving players the historical information they need in order to understand the map they are about to play. Games like Civilization and Age of Empires offer players historical tidbits. By knowing the histories of the various peoples that are represented as playable civilizations, players can gain advantages over their opponents and tailor their choice of civilization to their personal playing style. Not only does a historical game contain information that would be useful in the classroom, but it also creates a system that rewards learning in a way that is hard to accomplish using text books.

Realistically, the widespread use of games in a classroom has obstacles that must be overcome before they can become a common teaching tool. The first is education. Teachers, administrators and governments will need to come to see the benefits of this new teaching tool. The second is money. In a world of growing class sizes and shrinking budgets, it is unlikely that schools are going to pay for (or ask parents to pay for) licenses to these non-educational games en masse.

For now, teachers would be well advised to use these games on an individual level rather than using them as assignments for the whole class. An individual student with a passion for gaming might benefit enormously from the opportunity to put those skills to use for school. The bottom line is that students who enjoy their learning experience are more likely to do well in their classes than students who feel as though they are being force-fed information that has no real relevance to their everyday, technology-filled worlds.

Jon “Stradden” Wood is the News Manager at and is a former GM for Wish. Wood is also a certified teacher in Nova Scotia, Canada.

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