Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Guest Writer: Video Games in the Learning Environment

Today I wanted to share a piece written by Mary Ann, who coordinates the newsletter and email loop for the Tri-County Homeschoolers. I thought it fit in well with this week's computer-focused comics.

My ds (now 21) spent major amounts of time playing video games when he was growing up. When he was not in school (from ages 9 - 13), in fact, it probably comprised the majority of his time. When he returned to school at 13, he still spent most of his free time playing games. At 21, he rarely looks at them anymore - he's just gone on to other things.

Nevertheless, I worried a lot during that period about the amount of time he spent with them. Eventually, I began to see the games as a way in which he learned best. They were his entry into a lot of different areas. Let me give some examples. One of his first interests from when he was only 2 or 3 was airplanes. His father bought him MS Flight Simulator at 6 and together they learned how to 'fly' all different kinds of planes all over the world. When he started, he knew almost nothing about flying a plane and there was a lot of trial and error. Sometimes he would work with a neighbor who was somewhat proficient at simulator flying (as well as being a pilot). Eventually, he learned to go on boards and read tips and strategies for handling different planes. As he became more proficient, he began posting on those boards, which involved a lot of technical writing. Around 10, he became interested in radio-controlled planes and we would spend hours at the airfield in Croton Point Park talking with the men (there were never any women there) about planes and flying. He got a RC Flight Simulator so he could practice flying radio-controlled planes. At 12, he started taking flying lessons at White Plains airport, eventually completing a solo flight at 16. In addition to his flying lessons, he was required to attend ground school, which covered graduate-level science material - navigation, instrumentation, meteorology, physics, communications, etc. Most of the history and geography he learned revolved around planes. I would come into his room and he would have the world map spread out on his bed and be flying somewhere. So, these flight-related games led into almost every traditional school subject area.

He also loved the strategy games where you progress through different levels. When he was younger, he was relentless in learning them. He would get a new one, play it intensely for a period of time until he mastered it or solved all the levels and then he would lose all interest in it. On to the next one! He did this over and over and I finally realized it wasn't about the games per se, it was about learning and achieving a certain level of mastery. These are valuable skills - he showed persistence, dedication and an unstoppable willingness to learn.

Many of these strategy games involved moving through history, running businesses or building cities and/or whole worlds. There was a tremendous amount of knowledge one had to acquire to play them successfully. As a mathematician, I was often struck by the higher level of mathematical skills he needed. These games are essentially a system of equations which one must optimize in order to 'win' the game, or at least progress to a higher level. Changing one factor usually affects all the other factors and thus it's incredibly complicated to figure out the best course of action. This is essentially what he was doing - learning to solve a system of incredibly complex simultaneous equations. It's a very high level of mathematical thinking, way beyond straightforward arithmetic calculations, which were also an integral part of the games.

In his teenage years, he progressed to the massively multi-player games. Here, it was necessary to assemble a team of people who worked together to compete against other teams. Having learned Spanish in school, he would often go on the Spanish servers and work with a team of people who were native Spanish speakers. He used this time to improve his Spanish communication skills, since by this point, he had progressed to using a headset to communicate with other players. Since the games that he enjoyed were being played all over the world all the time, he would encounter people from many different countries and cultures. For a period of time, he was part of an international team that 'met' every afternoon from 3-6 pm to play a particular game. They each had roles to play and jobs to do for the team and it became a learning experience in organizing and leading a group of people. We often discussed some of the differences he noticed in interacting with people from other cultures. Did he discuss those difference with the people with whom he was playing - probably not much, they were too busy trying to win the game! But that didn't keep him from learning about those other cultures.

All along, he hated any kind of creative writing, but he frequently went on boards for his favorite games and posted tips, wrote strategy manuals and communicated with others who were having trouble progressing through the games. He loved being able to share the knowledge he had acquired with others who were not at his level of learning yet. So, in spite of hating to write, he ended up doing quite a lot of it.

There is definitely a cultural bias against games. However, I saw that he learned a tremendous amount from them and he developed skills that are useful in any walk of life.

~Mary Ann (reprinted with permission)


Laughing Stars said...

I love this post! I struggle a lot with my 10-year-old son's addiction to video games. But the more closely I look, the more I see the wealth of learning there. He is a reluctant writer, but he recently spent HOURS writing narrative for a RPG module he was creating. And THANKING me for helping him with his spelling. :-)

Tonya Power said...

It's good to hear something good about video games. We have been letting the kids play more video games during their summer break and I was feeling a little bit guilty about it (especially since they would insist that Mommy play too). I just try to keep the time they and I spend on it balanced with other things too.

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