Experts push gaming as a ‘serious’ element of higher education

Excelsior College's serious gaming panel will convene May 11.

Campus technology leaders say “game” isn’t the four-letter word it once was in the Ivory Tower, thanks to a new crop of instructors willing to make games a centerpiece of their course curriculum.

“Serious gaming,” as it’s commonly called at colleges and universities, involves computer games that maintain some entertainment value—enough to grab and keep students’ attention—while presenting  scenarios that challenge theories, strategies, and research that is often discussed during lectures, but rarely applied.

Some major universities, such as the University of Wisconsin (UW) Madison and Michigan State University (MSU), offer programs on serious gaming and the design of education-friendly simulations.

And Excelsior College, an online institution based in New York, is hosting a panel of gaming experts from academia and the business sector during a national summit on serious games in higher education that begins May 11.

Some of the country’s foremost advocates for educational video games will gather at Excelsior as gaming elements gain a foothold in classrooms and laboratories run by educators in their 30s and 40s who grew up with video games and have proven more experimental with serious games than their predecessors.

“Game is a very emotional word that some people love and some people hate, with a lot of people in the middle,” said Clark Aldrich, creator of educational simulations and an industry analyst who will host the Excelsior College panel next month.

Resistance to video game use in the college classroom, Aldrich said, means students don’t have the luxury of trial-and-error as they try to understand difficult concepts, like setting the correct price for a product in the market during class projects.

“You learn from breaking things,” he said. “People need the freedom to just play around in environments and see what happens. You can’t just throw someone in a pool and expect them to know how to swim. They need to learn by actually doing.”

Jon Aleckson, CEO of educational technology company Web Courseworks, who completed his doctoral research on serious gaming at UW Madison, said classroom gaming remains “on the tinkering and experimental part of the continuum” but would take a more central role as educators with gaming experience climbed the professorial ranks.

“When professors are gamers, they’ll get it,” said Aleckson, coauthor of MindMeld: Micro-Collaboration Between eLearning Designers and Instructor Experts. “We’re not talking about single shooter games, we’re talking about real thinking games, strategy games. … This is about making choices, being confronted with the reality of a situation. We should put that reality in a classroom and go to work on it.”

Aleckson said the traditional “didactic dump” used for generations in higher education is the most stubborn impediment to serious gaming as a main part of a course’s curriculum. Relaying information from professor to student this way—usually during lectures or smaller class sections—has its limitations.

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