Play to Learn

Computer games lead to innovative thinking

6 March 2009

techComputers—especially in combination with communications technology—giveth, and they taketh away. They take jobs away from high-wage countries by making them easier to export, but they also make it possible to create new jobs in their place—an activity in which computer games might prove valuable.

David Williamson Shaffer, a professor of learning science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, offers no surprises when he says that to remain competitive, high-wage countries need to produce products and services that can’t be readily copied by low-cost competitors. To produce such goods and services requires innovative thinking, which can be taught Shaffer says—and here he may raise an eyebrow or two—through computer games.

Many computer professionals agree that computer games are important to education—which is why the IEEE Computer Society organized the first International Workshop on Digital Game and Intelligent Toy Enhanced Learning (DIGITEL) in March 2007 in Jhongli City, Taiwan. Shaffer was the program cochair and was also on the review committee for DIGITEL 2008, held in November in Banff, Alta., Canada.

The conference focused on edutainment, which encompasses all forms of software designed to educate as well as provide fun.

GAMING TO LEARN According to Kinshuk, who goes by this single name and who organized DIGITEL 2008, there’s no question that children learn from playing computer games. For example, they learn history from Age of Empires, he says. The game’s history might be incorrect, but they learn it anyhow. So why not make games that teach useful things, like accurate history?

The use of video games in an online history class was covered in a paper presented at the conference by Vance S. Martin of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Martin’s work integrated a modified version of the game Civilization III into the curriculum of an introductory college history class. He found several advantages of combining the game with conventional teaching methods. For one thing, students were better able to understand the causes leading up to events instead of simply learning that the events happened.

Shaffer also advocates the use of games in teaching. He says the advent of computers has created a culture in which we need to learn to work in partnership with tools that do some of the thinking for us. And we can do that, he says, with properly designed computer games. As he sees it, players, especially in multi­user games, use certain knowledge, skills, and values, and they must share ways of making decisions and justifying actions—in what he calls an epistemic frame. From an educational point of view, such a frame recreates a valued social practice; in this case that social practice is the methodology with which certain professionals are trained to be innovative. An epistemic game could simulate a training period similar to the internships during which engineers or physicians really learn their professions.

Such games are not yet commercially available, so researchers in the field are creating their own. Kelly Beckett and IEEE Graduate Student Member Elizabeth Sowatzke, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, have developed what might be thought of as an epistemic version of SimCity, called Urban Science. Players begin with an assignment from the mayor of Madison to redesign a pedestrian mall. They get a budget and receive letters from concerned citizens about crime, waste, traffic, affordable housing, and other issues. Like real urban planners, they visit the mall to do a site assessment. While they are there, they hear from various concerned citizens and community groups.

If a player runs into a problem in Urban Science, there are no cheat codes to help out. Instead, the player can turn to a mentor—a real-life researcher in Madison reachable through an instant-messaging program—for assistance. That is pretty much what a real neophyte urban planner would do under similar circumstances.

ROBOTEACHER DIGITEL 2008 covered more than computer games. Robots received a lot of attention, especially from a group of Taiwanese researchers. One project reported by IEEE Senior Member Mu-Chun Su and his colleagues at Taiwan’s National Central University dealt with how robots are being used as learning companions to help parents educate their children. The robots in the project combined a Web camera with an attention-monitoring algorithm to determine how engaged a child is in a particular learning activity—whether the child is paying attention or is showing signs of fatigue. The robots also detected when the learning environment needed better illumination.

Other presentations described the use of robots as aids to teaching English. In one of them, students talked to a robot and told it to do various things—to dance, for example. If a student made a mistake, the robot would fall down. That engendered so much excitement that the students rapidly learned all the English words needed to control the robot properly.

Technology clearly has a lot to contribute to education. But everyone in the field warns that computer games and other technological innovations should be regarded as adjuncts to more conventional teaching, not replacements for it. A day when machines displace teachers is still in the realm of science fiction.

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