How Video Games Can Help in the Classroom, and in the World
By DAVID DEBOLT
Ms. Flanagan, a professor of film and media studies, was recently named the first holder of the digital-humanities chair at Dartmouth College. She is part of a research group, the Games for Learning Institute, that has joined Microsoft Research to study the most efficient ways to use video games in teaching math and science to middle-school students. She is also director and founder of Tiltfactor Laboratory at Dartmouth, which designs games to promote social change.
Q. You started out as a designer of mainstream computer games. What prompted you to begin working on your own?
A. When I was developing commercial software, one of the things that kept coming to mind was questions about the kinds of products we were making. I was thinking to myself, ‘How do we know this game is really educational? What are the ways you measure something like that? How do we know we are addressing diverse audiences?’ I developed this real sense of curiosity about the various ways that things I was making were being used. Sometimes you have a real push to get your product out the door, and you fail to have the time to ask important questions about what games are doing socially and culturally.
Q. What is it about games that could have profound effects on players’ attitudes?
A. Games position the player in a place of choice. Players can choose to do various kinds of activities and see the results of their actions. It gives you the opportunity to fail. But games really allow you to experiment on the edges of things, to try out novel ideas, approaches, and strategies. For some players, it’s just as pleasuring to fail in trying some exorbitantly strange task as it is to get the right approach on the first try.
Q. At what ages are video games most effective in education?
A. I think you can really design interesting software for learning at any age. My approach right now is taking advantage of what kids are doing already. For example, what do middle schoolers like to do with the computer? They definitely will search, but they also like to chat, and they like to socialize. My approach is to extend that into software to make it as effective as can be.
Q. Educational video games are often seen as boring. Why is that?
A. A lot of the kids say games they are allowed to play in school are never as fun as games they are allowed to play at home. What we really have to do is focus some really good design talent on coming up with novel design and novel assessment strategies. Unfortunately the educational-game market is almost nonexistent compared to the commercial-game market. So [getting] the commercial-game market to incorporate more education aspects, I think, is a better strategy.
Q. What will the Games for Learning Institute hope to discover with its new $3-million research project?
A. We are going to be looking at those moments of engagement in games that make a particular game special. Where are the places a player connects with a game? It’s probably not just the character. Very few studies occur on commercially available games that aren’t marketing surveys or business plans. This is a chance for academics to actually look at the commercial world and what’s working, and report on that from a scientific standpoint.
Q. Will teachers or professors who are nongamers incorporate games more in the classroom?
A. I do think there are a lot of hurdles. The unfamiliarity with the interface and the controllers turns a lot of people off. I hear over and over from educators they’ll let their students use something but they are not willing to try it, because there is a learning curve and they may not want to be humiliated in terms of expertise. When people are equipped with the right tools to be able to explore this in a safe environment, a lot of people are interested.
Section: Information Technology
Volume 55, Issue 9, Page A12