How games have evolved to provide real-world education

How games have evolved to provide real-world education

Mad City blends handheld computer gameplay into a real environment, the city of Madison. Image courtesy of the ADL Co-Lab.

Madison, Wis. — Firefighters need to be fully prepared, practicing hundreds of times before their first high-rise fire. City officials need to respond to a chemical spill immediately, getting the right information to the right place. Military teams need to work together, planning the best strategy to avoid casualties.
These high-risk jobs now have virtual training tools, thanks to a string of developments in video games. Groups like the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab have been at the front of this effort, developing simulations that give users an equal dose of realism and cooperation.
“The ways that they work line up very well with how people learn,” said Kurt Squire, an assistant professor of educational technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an ADL Co-Lab researcher. “They allow you to test ideas, get just in time information in action, and they tend to produce powerful learning communities.”

Dealing with problems in the real world

Squire said that the U.S. Army was one of the first organizations to get involved with gaming as a learning tool, developing America’s Army to help train soldiers and give the Army an updated image. Taking advantage of the realism provided by new engines, they created a combat simulation that gave players a view of what would be expected in combat. Full Spectrum Warrior evolved from America’s Army, placing the player in control of teams that the player has to keep alive – to the last soldier – in order to finish the game.
Biohazard, which Squire developed at MIT’s Games-to-Teach program, used the same principle of trial and error to teach gamers how to respond to outbreaks of disease. Players needed to identify the disease and take steps to prevent infection, stopping it before time runs out and more people become infected. If they contract the disease, their abilities deteriorate and they die, at which point they start over and try a new approach.
“Most of our early game ideas were prototypes designed to answer the question ‘Could you make a decent educational game that would combine the best about education and games’ ” Squire said. “I think that we showed that it was possible in a number of different ways.”
The Co-Lab has taken a step forward from Biohazard to develop Mad City, an “augmented reality” program that simulates what would happen in the event of a chemical spill in Madison. Players – including nearly 500 high-school and college students over the past two years – take on the role of city figures such as doctors and public health officials, and receive information through a handheld GPS unit about the city’s status.
Each player moves through the actual city and receives document and interview updates on their handheld. The data changes depending on their role and location. The real, physical features around them are also important. And if they want to solve the problem before time runs out, they need to collaborate with other players to put the information together.
“It takes a lot of scientific reasoning to find the answer,” said Judy Brown, director of the Co-Lab. She added, “So far, most handheld learning applications have been applications ported from the desktop. … With GPS and wireless capability, our platforms enable the development of ‘augmented reality’ simulations, that is, simulations that provide a virtual context layered on top of a real-world context.”

Resources past the ‘hack and slash’

Choosing good team positions and manuevers is critical in Full Spectrum Warrior. Image courtesy of Pandemic Studios.

According to Constance Steinkuehler, a cognitive researcher at UW-Madison and Co-Lab member, the major benefit that video games have over traditional methods is the high level of user collaboration. In environments such as Lineage, a multiplayer fantasy role-playing game, people are confronted with problems that require them to develop group tactics for winning battles and gathering wealth.
The work that they do in the game frequently expands to the real world, as players begin coming up with strategies to get the most out of the system. Steinkuehler said she has seen examples of players making and trading spreadsheets to develop the perfect economic model for the game.
“Part of it has to do with how the game is designed to be learned, and the other part has to deal with how these communities interact with each other,” Steinkuehler said.
Thanks to improvements with graphics and processing power, games have also developed an unprecedented level of realism. Steinkueher cited Valve Software’s Half-Life 2 as one of the biggest achievements in video games to date, with “pristine and beautiful” graphics creating a world that almost feels real and natural for players to step into.

What comes after mouse and keyboard

Games such as Mad City are building on recent advancements in video-game hardware, moving past traditional desktop and console interfaces. Squire said systems such as the EyeToy mapping system and Dance Dance Revolution footpads allow players to directly controlling characters through body movements.
Brown said the ADL Co-Lab, which is interested in new techniques for mobile learning, is researching how the MadCity’s technology could be applied to Madison markets such as tourism. Another Co-Lab project looks at developing a teaching system for students in parts of Asia without classrooms or teachers, but where many people have cell phones.
Brown said that because so many students are already using technology such as PDAs and laptops to help them learn, it is important for education techniques to evolve as well.
“If you think about learning in the way you’ve always thought about learning, you’ll never get to where we are now,” Brown said.

Les Chappell is a staff features writer for WTN and can be contacted at