Schooling Obama on Games

Ray Huling | 4 Nov 2008 09:00
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

In the last of the Presidential Debates, Democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama called on parents to take responsibility for the education of their children. "Turn off the video games," he advised them.

Now, we know the Presidential front runner doesn't want us to turn off all of our games-otherwise we'd miss the ads he's been placing in them. He's simply saying that games have their place. They fall under the category of leisure activities that parents must discipline their children to resist in favor of schoolwork.

But what if games are the schoolwork?

Roger Travis, Professor of Classics at the University of Connecticut, along with several of his colleagues, has founded the Video Games and Human Values Initiative, a program that takes advantage of the educative value of videogames.

Starting last week, undergraduate students could register for Travis's Spring course, "(Gaming) Homer," an in-depth look at how the techniques, values, and themes of epic literature, especially the Iliad and the Odyssey, turn up in videogames like Halo. An epic quest, for example, has much in common with a level or a quest in a videogame, and thus the latter can educate just as the former does. "A quest is an attempt to achieve clarity about a particular object," says Travis. "What is really going on is that you're gaining knowledge, adding information."

Students will sign up for Runequest and Club Penguin, play games, and then report on them just as they would report on their reading of a poem from the epic tradition And this course is just one part of the Initiative.

Travis and his colleagues plan to establish a virtual Center for Video Games and Human Values as the cornerstone for their Initiative. The Center will be a virtual world designed with open-source software that will serve as a platform for discussion, an annual virtual symposium, and on-line courses. Travis will teach an initial on-line short course, Living Epic, during UConn's interim winter semester. The course is geared toward parents and elementary and high-school teachers, with an emphasis on the pedagogical potential of gaming culture.

The Initiative will also provide four Fellowships for visiting scholars and researchers to present their work through the Center. For students, teachers, and parents, the Initiative serves as an introduction to academic thinking on the phenomenon of videogames. But what do the professors get out of it?

As intellectuals are wont to do, the team of academics participating in the Video Games and Human Values Initiative makes startling, counter-intuitive statements about the subject of their research. Travis thinks games tap into the oral tradition of poetry, testing a skill more difficult than writing. His colleague Kirstie Cope-Farrar, Professor of Communication Sciences, thinks the kid- and grandparent-friendly Wii may make violent games more psychologically harmful by forcing players to pantomime violence. Michael Young, Professor of Educational Psychology, believes games may be better for teaching than traditional classrooms.

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