May 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Games… in the Library? | The Gaming Life

Video games support the curriculum and develop a new form of literacy

Are video games and literacy adversaries in school libraries? Do video games lack content and the ability to help students achieve educational goals? Many librarians are reluctant to add video games to their collections or even to allow game play on library computers. However, in the 35 years since the release of Pong, video games have come a long way. They have developed the ability to teach difficult concepts to today’s young people while keeping them engaged and receptive in ways that classroom handouts and homework can’t achieve. Literacy is moving beyond merely having the ability to read and write. In our increasingly visual society, the ability to seamlessly interpret on-screen stimuli—such as the graphics of a video game—has become a new form of literacy.

Gaming and Literacy

The value of video games is constantly debated. Video game detractors argue that playing games is at best recreational, and at worst desensitizing and degenerate—no match for the educational and literacy value of reading a book. However, literacy isn’t just about print anymore. Literacy is the ability to rapidly decode abstract meaning from symbols. In reading, a set list of symbols—the alphabet—must be learned and mastered; in video games, those symbols can be anything, are usually unique to each game, and there’s a lot more than 26 of them. In order to learn how to play a new game, users must be able to rapidly decipher the game’s unique symbols and conventions.

Gaming also requires text literacy in order to succeed. Most of the popular games have no speech or tutorials—all communication, from interface to research to dialogue with in-game characters, is delivered to the player as printed on-screen text, a few lines at a time. Players must understand the text in order proceed through the game. Constance Steinkuehler, Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote an excellent dissertation on "Cognition & Learning in Massively Multiplayer Online Games: A Critical Approach". She responds to those who believe that video games are giving rise to a literacy crisis by presenting research that proves that gaming is not replacing literacy activities, but rather is a literacy activity.

An example in elementary schools around the world is the ever-present Pokémon juggernaut. Success in the Pokémon world requires real-world literacy. A player who chooses to talk to every character, achieve every goal, and try every option must read and understand thousands of lines of text. Research is a major component of game play. Players can refer (or contribute) to Bulbapedia, a wiki-style encyclopedia of the Pokémon universe, to learn about the attributes, strengths, and weaknesses of over 500 different characters; the literacy required for success extends beyond the game itself. Avid game players also read, write, and refer to comprehensive fan-made documents and fan fiction (some definitely not for kids) about the game. Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler, in "Meet the Gamers" (Library Journal, April 15, 2005), made the important point that "…game cultures promote various types of information literacy, develop information seeking habits and production practices (like writing), and require good, old-fashioned research skills…."

Gaming and Spatial Reasoning

Playing video games goes beyond building literacy—it helps to develop spatial reasoning and interface literacy, skills that are becoming increasingly essential in a myriad of jobs. In a very interesting study, Dr. James Rosser, Chief of Minimally Invasive Surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, conducted research to determine if there is a substantial correlation between playing video games and being adept at laparoscopic surgery. At a recent "Medicine Meets Virtual Reality" conference, he presented the results of his research that concluded that there was a definite correlation. Surgeons who played video games for three hours a week performed 27 percent faster and made 37 percent fewer errors that those who didn’t play video games. The coolest part is that Super Monkey Ball was the game used in the study, and Dr. Rosser nearly always warms up before surgery by playing that game. An article by Michel Marriott in The New York Times (Feb. 24, 2005), "We Have to Operate, but Let’s Play First," goes into more detail about Dr. Rosser’s plans for training surgeons using video games.

Gaming and the Curriculum

Video games teach literacy and spatial reasoning, but they also support the curriculum. What can librarians do when they notice students playing vapid Web games and looking bored? It’s a great opportunity to do just what they would do when youngsters are interested in sports but want to go beyond Edward Bloor’s Tangerine (Harcourt, 1997) or Chris Crutcher’s Athletic Shorts (HarperTeen, 1991) and they suggest My Heavenly Hockey Club (Del Ray, pap. 2007), the manga sports comic book by Ai Morinaga. Offer your faculty and students some video games to support the curriculum. The extremely popular simulation, Civilization (and its free alternative, FreeCiv), is an excellent place to start. In the game, which begins in 4000 B.C. and can last through thousands of years, the player is the Emperor of a society and has to decide how to allocate resources, where to expand, and what to research to help the empire grow and outperform and overpower the city-state next door. Kurt Squire, Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, described in his dissertation, "Replaying History: Learning World History through Playing Civilization III", how the game can ignite a curiosity about, and support an exploration of, world history to the point where middle-school players were so involved in the game that they willingly read history texts to try to beat his formidable grad student.

In middle school, I had a wonderful science teacher. For a unit on heart rate, he brought Pac Man Jr., an arcade game, into the classroom for a week and measured the students’ heart rates before playing the game, while playing, and during their last life to help us understand the physiological effects of stress. I never forgot what he taught us. Video games can help teachers deliver educational content that stays with youngsters, and as the gatekeeper of content and content technologies at your school, you’re in a unique position to help make that happen.

To reach and engage students, teachers must create an enthusiasm for learning. James Paul Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a well-respected video game advocate. In "High Score Education: Games, Not School, Are Teaching Kids to Think" (Wired, May 2003), he states: "Learning isn’t about memorizing isolated facts. It’s about connecting and manipulating them….Young gamers today…[are] learning how to learn….We don’t often think about videogames as relevant to education reform, but maybe we should. Game designers don’t often think of themselves as learning theorists. Maybe they should. Kids often say it doesn’t feel like learning when they’re gaming, they’re much to focused on playing. If kids were to say that about a science lesson, our country’s education problems would be solved."

Simulation Games

Simulation games like FreeCiv, SimCity, SimEarth, SimFarm, and others are compelling educational tools because they offer models of the real world that are far more complex and of a grander scale than the relatively limited scenarios that a lab or class activity can offer. They also allow students to explore alternate scenarios and learn something along the way. Players of FreeCiv can find out if the Nazis could have conquered Europe without railroads. SimCity gamers can explore how good zoning and tax incentives can encourage the use of public transportation. SimEarth can simulate a weather system bigger than any bell jar. Bill MacKenty, a teacher at Hunter College High School in New York City, successfully used Revolution, a modified version of the game Neverwinter Nights (a role playing game set in a fantasy world), developed by the MIT Comparative Media Lab, to explore Colonial Williamsburg. His Web site has a great deal of information that can help teachers integrate gaming into the curriculum.

Serving the Digital Generation

Librarians and teachers must be able to reach out to the digital generation. You can help your faculty by obtaining some applicable games and making them available. Simulation games are a great place to start because they can teach difficult concepts in social studies, science, economics, and more. First, play them yourselves to determine how they can be integrated into the curriculum. Then you can offer teachers the outline of a lesson plan that they can adapt to their goals. For librarians and teachers to remain relevant in our technological society, they must engage students and embrace new roles as the purveyors of digital culture.


Eli Neiburger is the Technology Manager at Ann Arbor District Library, MI.

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