Henry Jenkins, Professor of Literature and Director of Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented on the 11th of February as part of the University of Maryland’s Teaching, Learning, Technology lecture series. Jenkins is one of the founding members of the Education Arcade, an initiative dedicated to investigating the use of games and game technology in the classroom.

Jenkins began with an opening slide depicting the 1996 Doonesbury Election game, which places the player in the role of Campaign Manager. Jenkins’ accompanying anecdote detailed how his son came to learn important components of the electoral process (the electoral college, etc.) during his play, but when he tried to play the game on school computers during open lab time, his request was denied because “games” were not educational and therefore not allowed. The school is now a test pilot for the Education Arcade.

Jenkins’ anecdote pointed towards a few key elements when discussing games and education. First, often games that are not meant to be “educational” actually are; oftentimes games meant to be educational are carrot-stick approaches, where learning a fact or figure results in a “reward” of game-play. These games frequently are less successful. Second, games are rarely considered educational, even though a quick review of some of the bestselling titles reveals games are “Rollercoaster Tycoon,” “Civilization,” and a variety of other strategy and simulation games that necessitate a growing understanding of resource management, history, and so on. Finally, games less frequently teach facts, but more frequently teach process; Civilization might not teach specific dates or simulate actual history, but it does teach the importance of various resources in developing various aspects of culture; Jenkins noted later in the lecture that Kurt Squire (U. of Wisconsin-Madison) found that while Civilization 3 might not be ideal for “teaching to the test,” he did count over 300 words that Civilization uses in the game and that are found on the history standardized tests.

“What’s the worst thing about homework?” Jenkins asked. “It’s too hard. What’s the worst thing about a game? It’s too easy.” It is this contradiction that initiatives like the Education Arcade would like to investigate and exploit to better education. What drives people to play games, and how can educators harness that same kind of energy for school-appropriate topics? Collaborations between industry, educators, and researchers to create engaging educational initiatives using popular media isn’t new – earlier attempts in television resulted in shows such as “Our Mr. Sun,” which circulated schools for years (one TV executive called the project “Operation Frontal Lobe”). That collaboration is what the Education Arcade is trying to foster.

While some researchers, like Kurt Squire, study the use of existing games in the classroom, the Educational Arcade also used initial funding to create several design documents (descriptions and rules for games that could be developed) for new educational games. One example: Prospero’s Island, based on the world described in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and developed in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Rather than trying to recreate the play (which would serve little purpose), they propose developing a version of the island that enables students to explore the richness of both the language and the story; one possibility was to turn metaphors into challenges, which allows students to work through how a metaphor works (in general and in the specific Shakespearian context).

Jenkins also described an Augmented Reality Game (a game played in an actual, physical space, such as a museum) actually developed in collaboration with the Boston Museum of Science. Kids teamed up with other kids and parents and solved a series of puzzles using clues around the museum; all of this was coordinated with handheld computers. The experience varied from student to student, and required that they teach each other and their parents – peer-to-peer teaching and learning was built into the game mechanism, reinforcing their learning. Many of these kinds of games can be developed around local community resources.

Media literacy is also a primary goal of the Education Arcade. Jenkins provided some context for this need: in a 2003 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey [available in PDF format here: Let the Games Begin: Gaming Technology and Entertainment Among College Students], 100% of students surveyed said they had at one point played games; 70% still played “once in a while,” and 65% played regularly. 48% agreed that game playing kept them from studying “some” or “a lot,” and – this is the truly disheartening figure – 32% admitted playing games that were not part of the instructional material during class. In a separate study Jenkins’ team did at MIT, incoming students stated that they played games more than they used any other media, including television, the movies, and books. One method for tackling media literacy is to make students media producers; in one example, students were asked to consider the politics of a colonizing process as they created a Flash game called Tropical America [relevant links: Tropical America Game website and the description on the Education Arcade].

Jenkins discussed some of the merits of games in the classroom and, in doing so, highlighted some of the scholarship in the field. He referenced Jim Gee’s What Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, noting Gee’s assertion that games are about problem solving; gamers learn through hypothesis and discovery in an environment free of risk. By virtue of the fact that game-play is re-loadable and repeatable, players (and by analogy, students) can make mistakes and then learn to correct them; the price of a mistake in a contemporary classroom is much higher – so much better then to enable practice. Furthermore, games constantly push at the outer limits of players’ competency by the careful staging of levels that can adjust to the player’s needs and abilities. He also reminded the audience that types of games and simulations, such as Model UN, are already used in education to great effect, emphasizing that their value is not just in the simulation, but in the student work that is necessary as they prepare for the simulation.

The focus of the talk turned to Revolution, a game about Colonial Williamsburg in 1773. The game is being developed by the Education Arcade, with the help of student programmers and graduate students, with support from Colonial Williamsburg. The first chapter is based on an incident where the jittery British confiscated guns under the pretense of an impending slave revolt. Students play characters in the accurately modeled town, and depending on what kind of character the student chooses, they have different influences with various factions (royalists, slaves, and so on). The programmers have customized the game engine so that talking to members of different factions has an effect on game play. Making flamboyant choices – such as aggressive rebellion in the presence of royalists – can have severe consequences.

Available outside game-play are historical documents – newspapers of the time and other primary sources – that detail the events the game is based on, so the game is not – and should not be – played in a vacuum. Teachers are absolutely necessary to the enterprise. Part of the challenge, Jenkins noted, was that 40% of Colonial Williamsburg was comprised of black slaves. Accounting for master / slave relationships in the game was difficult, because making those roles “unplayable” wasn’t a reasonable option; teachers must be present, he asserted, to ensure a cautious and careful approach to these sensitive topics. Currently, Revolution is being tested in Boston schools. Jenkins indicated that the budget for Revolution was around $100,000, but this was using student programmers and involved customizing an already existing game engine (from Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights) rather than building their own.

Jenkins concluded that games are not always fun, but good games are always engaging; part of the challenge is convincing the public, funders, and school administrators that games are not just “for fun,” but that their ability to engage students can enhance their educational experience. A healthy discussion followed Jenkins’ presentation. I asked what how successful fund raising had been, and he admitted that funders were wary for a variety of reasons. I also asked what kind of curriculum support had been built around Revolution. If I understood correctly, while they have collected primary sources (newspapers, etc.) and have the game, it was not clear that there was a specific series of lesson plans integrating the primary sources with game-play. Developing those types of materials may, in fact, make potential funders less wary, if the game component appears balanced with other Internet and computing resources available for teachers, such as what EDSITEment currently provides.


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