Gaming for Good

Games make headlines.  They do more than intrigue; they endear themselves to us, giving grown-ups opportunities to re-imagine or re-live in the virtual world the “play” lost to adolescence.

Maybe that’s too biblical an explanation for gaming’s appeal. Reasons aside, the political debates of the early 2000s about violent video games, which spilled out of the 1999 Columbine shooting aftermath, seem long gone. So much of the media hype surrounding games to which I’m most attuned concern how institutions are adopting more gaming-friendly attitudes to revamp their image (and appeal); how games are changing the way we connect; and how they’re shifting the way we learn. Arianna, for example, took notice of the Boy Scout’s take on staying current. SCVNGR believes its more unbounded mobile game-world will win out over Foursquare’s. More audaciously, Slate considers how games used in military training could improve not only manual skills, but critical thinking about the rules of engagement. Lastly,  IEAR.org reports that educators “are clamoring” for more constructivist, less “drill and practice” exercises, while a team of researchers suggests that games can be much more than supplements or conduits of curricula.

So it’s none too surprising that 77 percent of medical students at the universities of Michigan and Wisconsin say they would “participate in a multiplayer online health care simulator if said simulator helped them accomplish an important goal,” CNET reports. 98 percent think technology could enhance their education; 80 agree that video games have educational value.

As easily as they make headlines, however, games can also frustrate. For all the hype they generate in the education world, the latest stories on gaming tend to provoke the imagination more so than they convey data-driven conclusions. Although this talk by Jane McGonigal, director of Game R&D at the Institute of the Future, certainly doesn’t buck that trend, it does begin to frankly answer some of gaming’s toughest questions: what does it teach us? What is it good for in the real, rather than virtual, world?

(see minutes 8-12 and 15-20 for the most essential content)

Postscript: though this wouldn’t much interest the Michigan and Wisconsin med students, the Clearlab Project generates good material about the creation of science games for middle school. Entirely unrelated to gaming, I found this O’Reilly Radar post on “The Poetry of Code” fascinating; it also yields some insight about directions in computer science education.