The following is a sentence that no one is likely to have heard before: "Jimmy, your homework for this week is to finish playing Neverwinter Nights and be prepared to talk about it on Monday." To many, this request would seem odd and out of place, especially coming out of the mouth of a high school teacher. Simply put, videogames are not fit for use in the classroom.
Or are they? Not so many years ago, the answer would have been "no." Today however, with changing technologies and attitudes, the answer can be a resounding "yes." When I was earning my Bachelor of Education degree, I learned a number of things, the first and foremost was that the classroom is changing.
The kids, the material and the technology in the classroom are all evolving. This is leading teachers to alter their styles and approaches. Classrooms need no longer be places of dusty text books and chalkboards. Instead, the presence of TVs, DVD players, LCD Projectors and computers all contribute to making the classroom a more effective and interesting environment. This environment is meant to appeal to students who live in a digital world and rely on their computers for everything from entertainment to communication.
These changes are forcing teachers to reevaluate their teaching strategies. While some teachers resist this change and continue to teach using chalkboards and film strips, others are moving right along with the times. Chalkboards and overhead projectors have been replaced by PowerPoint presentations, film strips have been replaced by videos, DVDs and movies. Even traditional morning announcements are moving toward a video format more reminiscent of the evening news than the scratchy-sounding voice of the principal, projected from an old loudspeaker. Students are getting a more interactive and media-driven experience. The trick for teachers lies in trying to evaluate the educational benefit of introducing these new technologies into the classroom.
In the proper context, videogames can be used as teaching tools in almost any subject area. It is the stigma that is attached to videogames that has kept them out of the classroom for this long. For a long time, computer and console games have been largely viewed as an entertaining waste of time. On the surface, that might even be true. However, if you look a little bit deeper, there is a great deal of benefit to be found.
First, and most obviously, is the substantial amount of games that are educationally motivated. These are games that were created to teach. I remember that the first game ever to show up in my classroom was in 1991. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? was a successful game, that created the foundation for a very strong franchise. Players followed historical and geographical clues in order to track down the elusive criminal. The benefit for the classroom was obvious. The value of the educational genre of games has never been in question. It is the value of other games, games which were not developed with learning in mind that concerns me.
Games that don't carry an overtly educational message are almost entirely overlooked by educators, and that is the problem. Games like Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, Sid Meier's Civilization and Age of Empires, all games that were created solely for entertainment purposes, have a place in the classroom alongside the Carmen Sandiegos of the gaming world. The trick is to prove to teachers, students, administrators, politicians and parents that there is a benefit to using these games as classroom tools.
In almost any English classroom, teachers will guide students through the sometimes complicated world of storytelling. It might be something relatively simple like plot structure (beginning, middle and end), or something more complex like genre or voice. Using games, teachers could enhance a student's understanding of any of these, or a hundred other terms that come up in the study of English Literature. No one is trying to argue that books should be replaced in the classroom by their videogame counterparts. Books are the foundation of an English program and still belong there.