Pay2Play: The virtual classroom

Capitalizing on the success of simulations like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the recently launched mainstream game Rocksmith actually teaches you guitar as you play it. And the pedagogy uniquely emphasized by games — learning by doing — develops concurrently with the player’s growing skill in a way that traditional textbook learning does not.

“In a video game, every action produces an immediate and proportionate reward. If you are better, you do better and are wildly praised by the game-world, where in the real world you may do great things that go unnoticed,” wrote Devin Race ’13. “And seldom can you find an activity where you can vary the difficulty so the challenges match exactly with your abilities, allowing you to enter into the incredibly rewarding psychological state typically called ‘flow.’”

The flow that Race lauds — an intense consuming stimulation of the brain and its attentions — is seen negatively as addictiveness. And yet, the reward system feedback video games trigger can be rerouted and exploited to our benefit. The significant levels of patience and focus that games require have been shown in some case studies to actually increase player’s attention capacities. A 40 plus hour time commitment is a lot longer than most spend studying for tests, watching movies, or reading novels.

Puzzle games demand new levels of critical thinking. Former Chess Club President Lawrence Moy ’11 also pointed out that real time strategy games force players to balance long-term needs (such as resource management) with short-term demands (like battle-ready units) during war.“First person shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield require individuals to analyze situations in order to decide how to best achieve an objective, and to use teamwork to survive and succeed under pressure,” he wrote.

Annie Paul, a lecturer at Yale who’s working on a book about the science of learning, sees practicing games as useful past their immediate benefit in the gameplay world. Games present an “intriguing model of learning” as a way of aiding individuals in their academic studies through providing “instant feedback on performance and [presenting] challenges that are precisely tailored to the player’s ability.”

According to multiple studies, surgeons who are avid video game players have better laparoscopic surgery skills than those who had never played, and make fewer errors. And the more games surgeons played the better their dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and success in the operating room.

For medical schools, these games not only help to train surgeons before they ever hold a scalpel, but also have the great potential to educate others. More and more, graduate schools, fittingly those with a professional focus on real-world skills over theorizing, have looked excitedly towards the development of “serious” or “educational” games for use in fields as diverse as health, forestry, journalism, and higher education.

Play2Prevent™, a new collaboration initiative between researchers at the Yale School of Medicine, doctors, video game designers, and community organizations, is developing a video game to help teach youth about the risks of HIV infection. Researchers hope to effectively bring prevention strategies to those who need them through tapping into the captive audience of both teens and other age groups in consuming video games.

“Video games possess several advantages as a method of delivering educational information,” writes the Play2Prevent™website. “They are engaging, they allow the player to repeatedly practice or rehearse a new skill, and they are transportable — potentially traveling with the player via cell phone or other mobile device.”

Simulations create spaces for users to rehearse, to prepare, to explore, and take risks that they couldn’t or shouldn’t take in real life otherwise. Or in the case of unsafe sex strategies “before life makes them all-too-real and risky” as Associate Professor Fiellin, Play2Prevent director and principal investigator put it to the Yale Daily News in May.

For Yale School of Forestry, the open-access simulation and educational buzz around Second Life made it the perfect place to build Elihu Paper Mill, a virtual mill for students to explore paper mills through new perspectives. Second Life avatars can fly and wander without any safety concerns. The scholarly article published this spring about the professors’ experience using Second Life to teach ecology elaborated: “Jumping into the hydropulper or wood chipper is possible (and even encouraged!), in order to explore its operation and how it connects to other pieces of machinery in the facility.”

Despite disadvantages, like Second Life’s lack of skeletal sensory representation and student’s lack of direct interaction with workers and industry professionals, researchers saw the platform as providing an important supplement to a real tour as well as a useful replacement for those who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to an industrial facility.

Although games are being increasingly harnessed for professional uses, the training Yale offers undergraduates in studying them as a viable pre-professional field is scarce to none. The type of training should be less about studying a game, and more about learning how to make one.

The formal teaching of the skills of these games sitting behind a desk in a classroom seem pointless because it would run counter to the very learning-by-doing logic they represent. And, the diversity of gaming (like Wii Tennis vs. 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand) makes it impossible to lump games together into a strategy course like one ostensibly could with chess. Moy adds that “for fighting games, the strategies are incredibly idiosyncratic to both the players and the parameters of the game. The differences between a fighting game like Smash and an RTS game like StarCraft are even more pronounced.”

“I think it’d be a waste of time,” Ben Barasch ’14 grumbled. “I don’t know how you’d study a game. You just play the game. If they were going to teach games, it would have to be programming. From a story line perspective, video games are way behind film and books. English majors could work on that.”

As a national industry, games have surpassed the music, book and movie industries. Last year, almost half of all U.S. residents two years of age or older played a game online. Starcraft is South Korea’s national sport.

Keeping all this in mind, and as a school with sizeable pre-professional considerations, Yale could teach a video game narrative, design or strategy class with an eye towards the future as they do for the fields of graphic design, TV writing, coding, coding for business, journalism, playwriting, screenwriting and so on.

The Yale Residential College Seminar Program provides a space for subjects not already offered in the Blue Book. The college seminar “Technocultures”, being offered next spring, will teach video games in the classroom: there’ll be collaborative play in Second Life and playing of the first-person shooter Call of Duty 4.

“You cannot understand a novel without reading it, you cannot understand a film without watching it, and you cannot understand a video game without playing it,” says J. Jesse Ramírez, a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies and the class’ creator.

Although Ramirez says he’s sympathetic to the people who don’t like to talk about art because it takes away from the experience, he sees critical thinking and analysis as a pleasure that can enrich the others.

Ramirez wants to study games precisely for their sociological and philosophical questions. He pointed to the gaming’s problematic “violent masculinist pedagogy” and the questions they can ask such as “What does it mean to be a person, to claim a racial or sexual identity? Do these conditions exist online?”

“Technocultures,” in looking at games with open and eager arms, will invite students with experience and expertise in gaming to raise further questions.

“Many undergraduates are already experts on video games and in some ways know more about them than I do or any Yale professor does,” Ramirez wrote, who himself pointed out the irony in that he doesn’t own a cell phone. “That doesn’t mean undergraduates have nothing more to learn. But that knowledge and experience, the learning that undergraduates have already amassed through their own doing, should be our starting point.”

Press play to start.

Correction, Nov. 11 2011: An earlier version of this article stated that Play2Prevent is the name of a video game being designed to help teach youth about the risk of HIV infection. In fact, it is the name of the initiative to design that game, not that of the video game itself.

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