Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2010 | Features

Press "Start" to Learn

By Shelbi Thomas

Steve Kalkhoff first witnessed Brazil's impoverished and crime-ridden slums as a high school student studying abroad. He never thought his second visit would come through a video game.

Unexpectedly, the UI freshman was reintroduced to Brazil's poorest neighborhoods while watching his dorm mates play special ops forces fighting militia in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. When his friends asked about the "favela" (the Portuguese word for slum) where a level of the best-selling game is set, Kalkhoff had the opportunity to share his concern for the indigent people of Brazil.

Although Kalkhoff was previously skeptical about the potential to learn from video games, the experience has since opened him up to the possibilities—a story he now shares as a student in the UI's "Video Games as Learning Tools" course. "It might be eye-opening," he says, "if people step back and realize that what's happening in that game is happening in the real world."

Offered through the Tippie College of Business, "Video Games as Learning Tools" is a one-credit-hour course that explores game system technology's impact on learning in the 21st century. The first-year seminar for students from any major looks at the multibillion-dollar entertainment industry to ask: can we learn anything from video games?

Jim Chaffee, director of Stead Technology Services and an adjunct lecturer for the business college, thinks so. As the course's instructor and an avid gamer, Chaffee believes that a passion for video games can motivate people to dig deeper into learning. Whether students research the Battle of Thermopylae after playing the movie-based game 300 or explore the religious themes in the firstperson shooter Halo, their quests for fun can lead to new knowledge.

The undergraduates, who typically come into the class with a deeply engrained belief that entertainment and education are mutually exclusive, are often surprised by such revelations. When Chaffee asks his students about classroom learning, they characterize it as "boring," "monotonous," and involving "too much time listening instead of doing." Video games, meanwhile, receive rave reviews for being "fun," "engaging," and "challenging."

While video games can never replace the firsthand instruction of an experienced, skilled professor, Chaffee thinks teachers could take some pointers on how games captivate students' interest. They could break up a lecture-heavy class with group discussion, connect course material to pop culture, or take a field trip that brings textbook knowledge to life.

Chaffee doesn't expect teachers to throw tried and true teaching methods out the window. Certain subjects, such as chemistry, would be nearly impossible to teach through video games. Instead, Chaffee encourages them to think about how the younger generation's upbringing in the Internet age might influence their learning style. Says Chaffee: "When they're having fun, students don't even realize that they're learning, and the information holds better."

Just as a spoonful of sugar makes liquid medicine more palatable, video games sweeten the trial and error method of learning. Chaffee's class reads a neuroscience article, which explains that regardless of how teachers present material, the brain processes information in the same way. Video games can put a fun spin on memorization, critical thinking, and other learning methods. By offering bonus levels, superpowers, and other rewards, they reinforce good decisions and motivate players to persevere through challenging puzzles. Players also can advance through missions at their own pace.

"Saved games" encourage players to experiment with creative approaches in order to complete missions without being penalized for mistakes. The repetition involved in solving such puzzles helps players retain information better than if they were simply told how to master the game.

Despite such positive ways in which video games can foster learning, negative stereotypes about them persist. Parents often see them as timewasters that keep their children away from chores and homework. Politicians blame them for glorifying violent crime. Psychologists hypothesize that video games might create a generation of maladjusted hermits.

Through writing assignments and class discussions, the UI students examine the truth behind such claims. Midway through the course, Chaffee splits the class up into two groups to debate the pros and cons of video games. They analyze a Daily Iowan article about a UI freshman who skipped classes and lied to family and friends to feed his obsession with World of Warcraft. As the 19-year-old became the first person in the nation to receive treatment from a Washington-based Internet addiction recovery program, his father wrote him a letter that read, "I am terrified and despondent that you will throw all of your advantages away for something that is not even real."

While video games can become an escape from the real world, they do also offer some real-life lessons. Many—played both on and offline—create a sense of community and teamwork that players can translate into everyday social situations. Games used in moderation can even enhance job performance. Drivers, surgeons, military soldiers, and others in professions that require precision and accuracy often play video games to improve hand-eye coordination. Kalkhoff, who belongs to the UI ROTC, notes that the Air Force uses video game-like controllers to guide unmanned aircraft currently flying over combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nonetheless, the class addresses concerns that some games may lead to aggressive or violent behavior. Chaffee shares a video of a judge's ruling on a teenager who shot his parents after they took away his copy of a violent video game. The instructor asks students whether products such as Grand Theft Auto, where players steal cars and shoot at policemen to earn points, alter users' perceptions of right and wrong.

Students contend that video games are often used as scapegoats in cases such as the Columbine tragedy, where the attackers already had serious underlying mental health issues. They present studies that show youth crime has fallen dramatically since the introduction of violent video games and that many games are effective outlets for stress relief. Says history freshman Nick Larsen*, "I think most players are able to distinguish reality from virtual reality."

The class concludes that, as with all technology, video games are only as good as their users. An expert in educational technology, Chaffee reflects on how computers have contributed positively to the classroom. Video games similarly have the potential to enhance education. "Students who have grown up on TV and video games are more likely to be visual learners," says Chaffee. "The old style of lecturing bores them and loses them fast."

As elementary school students, Larsen and Kalkhoff helped load trains at a factory and chase thieves around the globe. They thought these experiences—gained through the best-selling computer games Reader Rabbit and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?—were purely fun. They didn't realize that they were also educational.

Through such pursuits, countless students practiced spelling, brushed up on world history, and perfected their math tables. They learned the hardships of America's pioneers heading West (courtesy of Oregon Trail), the basics of supply and demand (Lemonade Stand), and economic planning and decisionmaking (SimCity). Now Larsen, Kalkhoff, and other students in "Video Games as Learning Tools" ponder: can video games offer educators the next Carmen Sandiego or Reader Rabbit?

Chaffee says that may happen if developers find a way to turn educational games into cash cows. While students loved playing Math Blaster at school, he notes, they would turn to wholly entertaining games at home. The divide between entertainment and education may be bridged soon, though, as more interactive games such as Wii Fit turn the mundane into fun.

Soon, Microsoft will release Project NATAL for the Xbox 360. Rather than holding a controller, players use their bodies or voices to guide onscreen action. Further advances in virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and graphics will also lead to other realistic game-playing experiences that could virtually transport users anywhere from ancient Egypt to outer space.

Chaffee doesn't expect gaming developments to radically change the education system. He does, however, hope they open students' minds to how recreational activities can lead to new learning opportunities. He explains, "My main goal is for them to realize that they can learn tangentially from all sorts of things in their lives."

Even video games.