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.

Using serious video games, and encouraging students to apply their knowledge in a digital world designed to simulate their future workplace, is gaining traction on college campuses, Aleckson said, but is far from an accepted learning practice.

In MindMeld, Aleckson and his coauthor, Penny Ralston-Berg, offer the case of college students who assumed the role of a cryogenics engineering consultant for a company called Cool-It. Each student would select a problem faced by the company and work through processes in a serious video game to present a solution based on the “right procedure, the optimum order, and the ideal cost.”

The student could present a variety of acceptable answers by the end of the serious gaming exercise, but only one solution to Cool-It’s business dilemma would be the most cost effective for the company.

Dave Gagnon, an instructional designer who helped create the Cool-It video game, said having students experiment with a variety of problem-solving techniques taught lessons that couldn’t be learned in a traditional classroom or lecture hall.

“We all wanted people to have the experience of a cryogenic engineer and get at that experience from the mad scientist point of view,” Gagnon said in MindMeld. “You lock into the kind of learning that is not about memorizing the cost of metals, and is not about solving math problems by hand. It is about knowing the relationships between things, and forming gut reactions about what to try.”

Andrew Phelps, director of the School of Interactive Games and Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), said advocates for serious games could grab their colleagues’ attention if they can strike a balance between the educational and training value of video games while keeping the games engaging for students.

“We would do them a disservice if we were only to focus on entertainment based applications,” he said. “Drawing a rich simulation from another domain often allows the educator to explore new concepts with students, whereas continual focus on forms and areas that the students are already familiar with can sometimes limit their imagination.”

Aldrich said the serious gaming panel scheduled to gather at Excelsior in May would show that video game-centric learning won’t be reserved only for tech-savvy professors familiar with popular video games.

Games, one day, will be so ingrained in higher education that they might no longer be known as games, Aldrich said.

“This is becoming the default media for content moving forward,” he said. “This will be the way to repurpose educational content around highly interactive atmospheres. … Passive content will be passed by some day.”

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