Madison, Wis. — If the last video game you played was Pac-Man, you might have missed the advances that turned games into immersive training tools for skilled professionals and leaders.
Three University of Wisconsin-Madison professors, among the top researchers in learning through game-playing, explained the advantages of games over traditional teaching tools Thursday evening.
The $10 billion-a-year gaming industry has already eclipsed Hollywood box-office sales, said Constance Steinkuehler, a UW-Madison cognitive researcher, and is on track to beat the music industry and home-video rentals. About 37 percent of both men and women say they play online games, she said, and more play a variety of single-player games.
“When you consider that we have 50 percent who even vote, we’re not doing that bad,” Steinkuehler said.
She and fellow UW professors James Gee and Kurt Squire argued that these types of games are much more than mindless entertainment, and derivatives of them could be used in schools or for corporate training. They work with the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory at UW-Madison, a testing ground for learning games.
Video games let their players step into new personas and explore alternatives. Not only that, but people can try to solve problems they’re not good at yet, get immediate feedback on the consequences and try again immediately.
Gee said the ability to explore right away makes games more engaging than textbooks or lectures. In schools, “you have to read 500 pages of biology and then you get to do biology,” he said. “Of course you only actually read 200. [A video] game allows you to perform before you’re competent.”
Because games keep things “pleasantly frustrating,” Gee said, players have incentives to keep on improving their performance. That can lead to learning outside the game as well. After his son started playing Age of Mythology, he started reading more about real-world mythology, Gee said.
“It’s the next big thing just because teachers have tried for the longest time to grab students’ attention, teach them concepts such as science,” said Ankur Malhotra, chief operating officer at NeuronFarm, which makes Web-based games meant to improve reading skills. “Gaming deals with a lot of these concepts, as they learn about all the tools, classifications and what makes a civilization function… I think there are some real lessons to be learned.”
One of the biggest users of games as training tools is the U.S. Army, which released the free tactical game America’s Army to boost its recruitment and has worked with commercial game companies on a variety of other titles.
“Gaming is old as dirt in military culture,” Squire said. Now, though, video games are becoming a more viable alternative to mock combats in the field.
Games such as America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior—which is available commercially with a fraction of the features the Army’s version has—are part of a culture shift in the military, he said. They contradict the view that soldiers are cannon-fodder and bolster the Army’s new branding of itself as a high-tech, professional workplace.
In Full Spectrum Warrior, Gee said, players lead a team of soldiers and must keep them all safe by using the right formations and maneuvers. Losing even one means the game is over.
Gee and his colleagues would like to make similar games that let players be scientists or take on other professional roles. Squire has worked on a game called Biohazard in which firefighters must react to dangerous situations. They learn the most effective ways to, for example, evacuate people from a mall after a sarin-gas attack. Firefighters like the game and even play it over break because it allows them to be heroes, he said—and because the game characters are smartly dressed.
- Read more about the use of games in health-care training and the Games for Health conference in Madison
Games also let players be producers rather than just consumers. Many recent games allow “modding,” the insertion of new plot-lines, graphics and characters, or even the creation of entirely new games.
“You can use Neverwinter Nights as an application development environment,” said Preston Austin, chief architect at Clotho Advanced Media, Inc. The game includes an event-driven programming language that lets people set up their own complex plots and scenarios, which they can share over the Internet.
Parents and teachers have not seen all of the current crop of games as good for children—some say violent games lead to violent behavior—but the three researchers said they contain valuable learning technologies.
“We’re not pushing games as good or bad,” Gee said. “It depends on what you’re doing.”