“Serious” video games liven up learning for Canadians

If you only thought of video games purely as fun, or a pastime, think again.

There’s a resurgence of interest in edutainment – use of interactive activities or games to make learning more engaging – in academic institutes across North America.

In response, video game developers are creating a broad repertoire of “educational and training” games.

Some more high-profile ones – such as SimCity, Civilization and Hidden Agenda – are being used in schools and universities across the continent. Others are being designed for and deployed in targeted environments.

The clamour for educational video games will only increase, according to The Serious Games Initiative in Washington D.C. The Initiative focuses on use of games for exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector.

2008 was a record year for the video games industry in Canada, with revenues reaching $2.09 billion, according to The NPD Group a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y .

This represents a year-over-year growth of 23 per cent.

Educational and training games are getting to be a very significant category in this market, industry insiders say.

One reason could be that far more adults – rather than teens or kids – are playing video games. The average age of a gamer is now 40, according to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada.

Seventy-five per cent of all Canadian adults have played a video game at least once, while nearly two-thirds have played in the last year.

Educational or training games would have a greater appeal for older adults (40 years and above) than for kids and teens.

In this sense, video games are much like movies, says Trevor Fencott, CEO of Bedlam Games Inc. a video game developer in Toronto.

“People don’t just stop watching movies after they outgrow Disney classics. They just switch to different types of movies. It’s the same in the gaming industry – adults still want to play games, they’re just choosing different types of games.”

Some more well-known “serious” video games involve training simulation exercises used in military applications, or (increasingly) in emergency medicine.

Video games are used to teach fourth year undergraduate courses in software engineering (game design) at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

You could teach the entire program on a video game, says Martin Mohrenschildt, associate professor at McMaster.

And the benefits to students studying game design and development are tremendous, he said.

In the industry, said Mohrenschildt, gamers don’t write code from scratch, but work on existing programs. “Students must learn how to work in an industry environment, and seeing immediate results in a game, provides reinforcement.”

Use of video games in a corporate context – for training – is also growing, noted Fencott.

He cited the example of Sims – the company behind the SimCity line of games – that has developed training applications to help small business owners.

These could include games that teach you how to manage a store by successfully completing everyday tasks such as restocking shelves, or responding to such common business problems as shoplifting.

Such games provide a life-like experience that’s very valuable, Fencott said.

Video games can be used to teach people the 21st century skills employers are looking for, said Judy Perry, research manager, Scheller Teacher Education Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

Skills that can be picked up through video games include collaboration and critical thinking – the types of learned traits conventional classroom environments don’t foster.

“In my experience,

games draw students in and are highly collaborative, immersive and engaging,” said Perry. She said they also focus on problem resolution and teach practical skills to supplement classroom learning.

Perry designs location-based, learning tools that “augment” reality for elementary and high school students.

These programs – which get kids out of their seats – often combine mobile technology with video games, taking advantage of GPS technology.

“They get students in a different mindset and help bring quieter students out of their shell.”

However, Perry says – like everything else – there are good and bad learning games. And unfortunately, the bad ones often make the news.

“Bad games put entertainment before education,” she said. “It’s like Tetris with trivia where the education is an afterthought.”

Independent emergency medicine game designer, Tim Carter, agrees.

“Most programmers know how to use an engine and program a game but their design skills are weak, so they make many mistakes, which will cause a disconnect.”

Serious games, he said, are not about the technology, but about the design and research that goes into the subject matter. “It’s an aesthetic – a new application of technology.”

Carter says certain misconceptions have slowed down uptake for educational games in Canada.

Educators and designers here “don’t realize the potential for such gaming tools.”

But he believes the market for “serious” games has the potential to be as big or even bigger than the pure entertainment games market.

While it isn’t as highly visible, the training market is huge. “For instance, if games start to replace text books, that is a massive market right there.”

But certain obstacles still need to be overcome before the “serious games” really takes off, another industry insider suggests.

Design and generational factors are sparking much resistance to serious games – whether among individuals or businesses – according to Jason Della Rocca, executive director of New Jersey-based International Game Developers Association (IGDA).

“It would be great to have a game that teaches kids about bullying with best ways to act and react. But how do you design that and convey emotions in a believable way?”

He said the same difficulty holds true for games used in a corporate context. “How do you create something that shows how to increase profits by restructuring a business process?”

The Federation of American Scientists proposed a new vision for video games, recognizing their educational benefits.  But many educators and upper management executives remain unconvinced of these.

In addition, “techno-phobia” still prevails among many in the older generation, Della Rocca said.

But as far as he’s concerned, using video games for more “serious” purposes is a no-brainer.

“Games are powerful in their ability to simulate real-world situations.”

Discovering how to explore systems, manage resources, learning by trial and error – all these are all doable in a video game setting, he noted.

As a result, he predicts that over the next 10 – 15 years video games will be ubiquitous. “Gamers” as a separate group will no longer exist, because everyone will be a gamer, as everyone now listens to music.

He said there will come a day when everything will be a game – though we won’t call it that.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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