Farmville or Battlefield?

farm-field 2The of use video and computer games in education has sparked a bit of debate. On one side teachers see students doing something that they love to do, and hope games will promote this kind of engagement in learning. On the other hand is a growing concern that students also need to see learning as a responsibility and not expect it to be all play. A third concern  is whether games will actually cause the students to learn the skills we had planned for them to. Which brings about a fourth question. How do the students’ motivations for playing – and there are more than one – affect the outcome of instructional games?

When looking at games for education, I try to assess how skills used in the game will transfer to learning used in the world beyond the classroom. The FPS (first person shooter) type of game design seem to work best for improving speed at basic skills that should be automatic – such as word recognition, spelling and computation. But not everyone prefers this kind of game.

At the end of the semester, I strolled around a high school business information management class, most of the students have completed all assignments and are spending free time on the computers. About half the males were playing games. Many were competing against each other in a FPS game on a low resolution battle field. In another game, a boy threaded a cartoon-like biker through a maze of geometric terrain, and his friend watched as the biker lost cartoon-like blood and limbs. The other males were on YouTube. None of the females were playing games. For them FaceBook and YouTube came in as second choice to scrolling down screens filled with the latest fashion on Pinterest and Tumblr.

In a different class with this same sort of free-time, say a computer science, ninety percent of the class, females included, would be involved in gaming, some of it requiring long-term strategies. However, most of the students would be competing with their peers or watching the competition.  In an computer art class, there might be one person playing.

When I get home in the evening and check my e-mail there are all sorts of notifications from Facebook. My friends playing the new version of Farmville invite me to share their bounty, which evidently is worth points towards building a bigger farm. It is this kind of cooperative game, in which more friends offer opportunity to own more virtual goods, that many females teachers tend to favor. However, if they select educational games according to their tastes, they will lose a portion of the class that want action games or competition against real people.

The question of which kind of game promotes learning really needs to be revised to what range of games will engage all the students.

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