Why College Should Mimic Video Games

Beth Dumbauld

Why College Should Mimic Video Games

By Steven Pope

Games are nothing new, but the ability to use gaming technology in learning is getting better by the day. So while Ambrose Bierce may have been mocking in tone when he said “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography,” there is something to be said about video games being a good way to teach. It has a lot do with the concept of “play,” or abstract problem solving.

I love board games, card games, video games and everything in between. While it’s easy to convince someone that playing chess will help your algebra or trigonometry skills, it’s a much harder sell to say that someone playing a first-person shooter will make become a better calculus problem solver. A Star Talk Radio series with video game creator Will Wright discusses how playing is fundamental to learning. They provide examples such as animals playing with their prey as practice for hunting. They cite Sim City as proof that the creation process is much more challenging than the destruction process. You know, take that bulldozer to town, click a bit here, and destroy a few buildings there… But in comes the Sim City “monster,” an abstract problem that has to be solved. They liken problems in all video games to be abstract to the user. Whether it’s stepping on turtles in Mario, or move pieces on a chess board, these are all examples of abstract problems that are solved through play. Play allows for observation, interaction, and trial and error.

Here are three examples of what I’ve learned from video games.

  • While using the auction house in World of Warcraft I learned a lot about economics, how to buy low and sell high, and the rule of supply and demand.  At first I was going through the motions resulting in some losses, and finally learning the system and gaining a profit.
  • While adventuring through the Elder Scrolls Morrowind I learned how to read a map, finding ways around mountains, and locating cities. It wasn’t that easy at first. I got lost a lot, but by playing I learned how to interact.
  • While playing Magic: The Gathering Online I used what I learned from WoW and invested in trading cards that doubled in price and made a profit of $3,000.

Education innovators like Salman Khan are starting to gain traction about the need for better teaching methods. Take this interesting analysis in a documentary from Good Magazine in conjunction with StraighterLine’s partner college University of Phoenix.

"In education we provide problems separate from the relevance or the context they need to be used. That's one of the reasons students are so disengaged. In the video game world it's all about exploration. You solve a problem when you bump into it,” said Ntiedo Etuk, Founder and CEO of DimensionU.  (This excerpt starts at 3:40)

The process of applying techniques from games to other fields is called “gamification.” Frequent flyer points? Gamification. Roleplaying as a corporate team-building exercise? Gamification. eBay’s star system? Gamification.

Granted, StraighterLine doesn’t use video games in the classroom. Nor does most of the higher education industry – yet. We’re more focused on cost transparency, affordable and flexible options for working adults with busy lives. But we recognize the possibilities. Imagine if Personal Finance or Accounting I used World of Warcraft? Nobody would fall asleep in class; in fact, they’d probably have fun running the numbers and making profits like I did. That or they’d be casting fireballs and running the Warsong Gulch… Okay so there aren’t any gnome wizards running around at Straighterline (unless you count me) but our classes do use crossword puzzles, flash cards, matching, and beat the clock games. That makes our Economics I: Macroeconomics class much more fun and interactive than sitting in a class and listening to lectures from some subjective professor.

Steven Pope has an MBA from Western Governors University and Bachelors of Science in communication from Weber State University. He has a background as a television reporter in Idaho and Wisconsin, and most recently as an enrollment counselor at WGU.

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