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Games for Learning, What a Concept

Both Stephen and George recently pointed to this bit from Wired News: Educators Turn to Games for Help.

What an idea! … wait a minute, we took a look at Shall We Teach with a Game? back in 1994 at that time, with having our faculty review a selection of CD-ROM games for potential in new learning environments.

It is good to see that MIT has caught up with our work ;-) But no, we are not crowing for “we did it first credit”, but more to look at the power of small innovations that use existing content rather than big ticket projects that create glitzy, commercial game level apps.

We have had some internal discussions in our our organization about a (real? perceived?) notion that our system’s reputation for innovation has lost its luster.

So a question is, when people think of innovation, it it only the big money projects from MIT, Microsoft, etc?


We took this approach on for a simulation environment created in 1996 to teach one of the more difficult concepts in intro Psychology- Negative Reinforcement. Rather than a screen full of menus and buttons, the place we created based on the design developed by students, Negative Reinforcement University (NRU), was lifted right from the Myst game metaphor. There are places in NRU where we want the “player” to go to a certain room, but rather than making that the only choice (e.g. a big dumb button), we framed it in a puzzle or a series of discovery steps where they found out that it was the way to proceeed in the game.

My favorite example from the 1994 games software reviews was from a Spanish teacher who explored a bit of Myst Island and came up with a wonderful gem of an idea.

Ask advanced students to take a specific segment (i.e. dock to library and secret room) and write instructions out in Spanish – as well as what they saw. The opportunities are endless. Spanish 101 students can learn words and directions and they can be asked to follow directions and they will then have to say where they ended up.

I like this idea because it is simple, and it uses existing software in a creative way that its creators did not think if. Another math teacher even thought of having his students “pace” the island or a room, and do some calculations for computing the area of the island or volumes of rooms.

The point is that great, effective innovations do not need million dollar budgets or armies of geek programmers and mopey artist types. They can happen just with the open mind of a skilled teacher- the “art” of teaching has never been at using push button systems to create learning, but in crafting together in new ways , often from disparate existing resources, new learning activities (does this sound like a learning object discussion?)

Also, on the game front, when we did the 1994 review of software, some of the best materials were from (then Maxis) the Sim line- SimCity, SimLife, SimEarth, SimHealth… all of which are no longer available besides SimCity. But what was useful then was that Maxis then provided special versions of the software written for educators with lesson ideas, etc.

We get frequent requests from this old web site, “where can I get a copy of SimEarth?” and there is no answer. There is no reason why Electronic Arts cannot just post the old stuff somewhere for free.

Take for example Jim Gapserini, who had created the Hidden Agenda game we reviewed- he provides the no-longer available game for free to anyone who emails him comments and makes a donation to a non-governmental organization working in Central America. See his message we post on our game review site.

Or see Simulation Station Project S.I.M. by Dr. Eric Flescher, another free resource for peoplle interested in the power of simulations.

Or the free Virtual U, a sim that allows you to experience the power of running a university.

Think small. Think creative. And do not be stingy like Electronic Arts, be generous like Jim Gasperini.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


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