Teaching with Games

Journal of Higher Education

Nov. 26, 1979  vol. xix number 13

They teach and conduct research, like most of their colleagues, but they like to give their creative output such titles as “Bafa Bafa”, “Metor-apex”, and “They Shoot Marbles, Don’t They?” If their work is not published, it generally makes the rounds anyway through professional meetings and other informal contacts.

They represent many disciplines, including education, sociology, psychology, business administration, mathematics, and the natural sciences. They say they are often misunderstood – even ridiculed – by more traditional scholars, but they don’t take it personally. It’s not their loss, they say.

They collect things, sometimes by the hundreds: golf tees, metal washers, wooden blocks, egg timers, dice, tiny pieces of plastic. If the local hardware store or hobby shop can’t supply what they need, they’ve been known to drive for miles in a snowstorm to find someone who can.

They are the game-players and game designers of the academic world, and they aren’t just playing games. They are in earnest. With great energy and imagination, they are constantly creating, adopting and refining a wide range of instructional games, simulations, and other “experiential” exercises for all levels of education.

They readily admit that what they do is “fun” but they also do it because they are convinced that some of the most effective learning takes place when students get a chance to act out what they are studying in a game or special environment designed to simulate a part of the real world.

The “gamers” have had a hard time proving that, however. In the nearly two decades since they first became active on the campuses, their work has remained largely on the fringe of recognized academic endeavor. Many faculty members have simply refused to acknowledge that instructional gaming is anything more than a diversion, incompatible with legitimate scholarship. Still, there are signs today that the field may yet come into its own.

For one thing, it has begun to expand beyond an initial emphasis on elementary and secondary education to include more and more activities aimed at higher education.

Even more important, potentially, is the advent of the micro-processor a technological breakthrough that is putting sophisticated portable computers within the financial reach of all but the most impoverished academic departments. At a cost of less than $1,000. even individual faculty members can now think of acquiring their own micro-computers.

Those devices, which have a surprising capacity for handling the large data requirements of many gaming models, have experienced a marked increase in sales in recent months. Major national companies are entering the market, pushing the products for home and school.

Indeed, many academic gamers think that nothing short of an educational revolution could be in the making. A lot will depend, they say, on whether funds are made available to take advantage of what the small computers can do. “The hardware is all there,” says one specialist, “but the software tends to be trivial.”

Computers are only one aspect of educational gaming. More common are a host of non-computer board games and role-playing exercises that have worked their way into portions of the curriculum at hundreds of colleges and universities.

The phenomenon has occurred almost casually, gaming enthusiasts say, as first one professor and then another has sought to spice up a course and provoke student interest by using a game. Many such faculty members apparently aren’t even aware that others are doing the same thing.

But a sizable body of literature underscores the field’s popularity. A 10-year bibliography recently published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Teacher Education, for example, contains some 1,600 entries on games and simulations in 70 categories.

A dozen university-based centers and projects provide game evaluations and other activities “beyond the development of materials,” according to a newly revised handbook published by the University of Alabama’s Institute of Higher education Research and Services.

At a few institutions, notably the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California, game development has become a major enterprise. Some games are so complex that they take up to several years to design and can engage dozens of players over many hours or even days.

Whether games and simulations actually led to better acquisition of cognitive skills than do lectures and other traditional forms of institution has not been demonstrated conclusively. Even on the “affective” or emotional side of learning, where games are thought to have their greatest value, the evidence is far from overwhelming.

Gaming authorities generally concede both points. But they say their own observations and philosophy of education point to a positive influence on learning. In gaming situations, they note, teachers tend to back away from authoritative roles and become “facilitators.” Students, in turn, become deeply involved in playing and even in redesigning aspects of the games themselves They seem to be motivated as never before to examine subjects in great depth and from new perspectives.

In fact, getting players to become designers while they are playing a game is an important goal of the entire process. says Frederick L. Goodman, professor of education at Michigan and one of the country’s leading designers of instructional games.

“I want people tunneling around and underneath the model and saying. ‘Hey, that isn’t the way the real world works – get rid of the purple block.’” he says.

There is “no such thing as a bad game.” Mr. Goodman adds, “because if it doesn’t work, the students will want to fix it – and that’s where the value lies.”

The appeal of games goes back to the early years of childhood and is closely linked to the way people first come to learn about the world. That may help account for the positive feedback that game-designers say they usually get from first-time players.

“It hooks their ego.” says Ron Stadsklev, Coordinator of Experiential Learning at the University of Alabama. Institute and author of its gaming handbook. “Anytime you hook their ego, learning takes place.”

Mary E. Bredemeier, Professor of Education at Montclair State College in New Jersey, says games are especially helpful in “loosening up” graduate students.

“It’s a matter of letting a person be reinforced for finding out that he can cope effectively” with a problem at some level, says Mr. Goodman.

“It’s just an exciting, holistic approach to learning that really engages people’s emotions.” says Ralph J. Gohring, who created and teaches a course on simulation gaming at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mr. Gohring, an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, is past President of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association, a small, somewhat amorphous organization that evolved several years ago from a group dominated by military gaming experts and now focuses on education.

The association’s latest annual meeting, held on the Austin campus, attracted about 250 participants from across the country. The presentations showed that games and simulations of varying complexity have many uses in higher education.

At Michigan, for example, a political-science course on Middle East conflict culminates in a weekend long simulation game in which about 50 undergraduates become “negotiators” for various countries.

According to Robert Paines, a research associate at Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, the students usually prepare for the game over an entire semester, undertaking considerable work on their own initiative.

“The game puts theory into practice.” he says, and is “a highly enjoyable and memorable experience.”

At Texas, graduate students completing a 16-hour lecture series on careers in library science have been appointed to hypothetical selection committees and asked to choose the best of nine fictitious applicants for a university library job on the basis of resumes, cover letters, and mock interviews.

“The game worked even better than we thought it would.” says one of its designers, Keith W. Russell, who is in charge of professional recruitment for libraries at the Austin campus. By assuming the role of employers, he explains, the students discovered how various members of a selection team could form different impressions of the same candidate.

The experience provided dramatic evidence that “if you don’t get a particular job, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with you.” Mr. Russell says. Students also learned that role-playing was easy, and that as real applicants they could change their behavior in small ways to project a better image.

Other applications of gaming in higher education include:

  • An attempt by the University of Louisville’s school of social work to take account of applicants’ “interactional skills” and “disposition” to serve people in lower socio-economic groups.
  • A simulation called “The Academic Game.” developed by a task force of the American Psychological Association to illustrate the realities of faculty career development, with special attention to problems encountered by women.
  • An exercise run by educators from the University of Texas for about 150 community colleges, focusing on the skills that administrators and faculty members need to help students in those institutions succeed.

In the classroom, meanwhile, new uses of games and simulations are being developed in many disciplines. In a project at the University of Southern California this fall, about 110 undergraduate and graduate students are taking a multi-disciplinary, game-oriented course in public administration.

According to Richard T. McGinty Director of the university’s Center for Multidisciplinary Educational Exercises, the course is expected to attract 600 students within two years. When similar courses were offered at Cornell and Princeton Universities, he says, they were quickly oversubscribed without special promotion.

Despite the potential growth of educational gaming, many practitioners remain concerned about liabilities that could retard its development. Probably chief among these is the lack of research findings to back up theoretical views on the efficacy of games.

The essential problem is that, as frequently happens in the social sciences, the research involves subjective considerations and factors that are difficult to quantify. Asks Ralph Gohring: “How do you measure the quality of interaction between a teacher and his students?”

Many gaming advocates think that such questions, which focus on relations in the classroom and on students’ attitudes about learning, constitute a fertile field for scholarly inquiry.

Some, like Leonard Suransky, a doctoral student in education at Michigan, maintain that the simulation-gaming approach must be treated as “a learning and research method in its own right.” Otherwise, they say, gamers will fail to bring it into the mainstream of education.

“It must become a disciplined activity, as opposed to just happening.” says Richard D. Duke, a veteran game-designer and chairman of Michigan’s department of urban planning. He says he is confident such progress will take place, perhaps in a few years.

Others are less optimistic. They don’t think there will be enough money, and they don’t think enough teachers will be willing to move out from behind their desks and discover for themselves what games can do.

The risk for many teachers, says Richard McGinty, is that “games put you in a funny position sometimes, because you don’t know what will evolve. It’s a lot safer to work from lecture notes.”

Robert L. Jacobson

Austin, TX

3 Responses to Teaching with Games

  1. Dafne says:

    your blog’s design is simple and clean and i like it. your blog posts are superb. please keep them coming. greets!!!http://www.bmasrl.com

  2. Dennis H. Neumann says:

    Wow– I have been on four mission trips to Europe and Peru –in Europe we taught “English As a Second Langauge” — this theory on teaching is “Right On” — I am excited to study it more and pass it on to our MOST Ministries trainers.

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