Kelsey Sheehy

As parents try to rein in video game usage at home, some teachers are including it at school

Parent groups have long advocated limiting the amount of time children spend playing video games to make sure the activities don't get in the way of their social life and school work.

So what happens when the video games are the school work?

Increasingly, video and online games are making the transition from extracurricular to educational activities. Teachers are using the popular game Angry Birds in physics lessons, and others are using games such as SimCity to show how systems interact.

The immersive and complex nature of today's gaming world allows teachers to guide students through a variety of lessons using video and online games, says Matthew Stevenson, a teaching associate earning his master's in mathematics at California State University in Los Angeles .

"Games have sociological, religious, psychological, and ethical implications," Stevenson writes on the gaming forum GameSpot, using a game series called Mass Effect as an example. "It's a huge universe, complete with political, social, and religious systems. It has themes of war, peace, and even genocide."

But not everyone is sold on the potential educational benefits of gaming. While some say video games can encourage collaboration and build problem-solving skills, others argue that games are a distraction with little learning value.

"I don't send my kids to school to play video games," says Sara Sroka, who has three video-game loving boys in her Iowa home. "There are better ways to learn."

Video games are a distraction that should be used on a limited basis at home, Sroka says.

When second-grade teacher Joel Levin brought video games into his classroom last year, he had the same concern. Levin teaches computer classes at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, a private school in New York City. Last year he began teaching lessons with Minecraft, computer game with more than 15.5 million registered users, where players construct and maintain an imaginary world.

"There was a part of me that was scared. I didn't know if the kids would be able to grasp the game and what I was trying to do with it," Levin says. "I just thought it would be too much of a distraction."

But the opposite happened.

"It really all clicked," Levin says. "I was incredibly pleased with the results."

Levin took advantage of the game's open nature, removing monster characters and other content not suitable for second graders. He assigns specific tasks -- such as building houses, finding items, or solving challenges -- for students to complete within the game, and then weaves in lessons about online etiquette, Internet safety, teamwork, and conflict resolution.

"Games are where these kids are living," Levin says. "If you can drive these lessons home within the context of a game they really enjoy...I feel like I'm reaching these kids in ways I never was able to before."

This year he took Minecraft to high school students by starting an after-school group, an experiment that got off to a shaky start, Levin says.

"The first class was absolute anarchy," he says. "Every single kid had a certain way they liked to play, and we had all these competing interest about what our game should look like."

In four weeks, the group went from chaos to structure, Levin says, with the students spearheading the change. They held elections, selected leaders, and divided into exploration, research, building, and farming teams. The group works together to ensure their fledgling universe survives through droughts and disasters.

"Minecraftian society itself is very primitive, and without strong leadership or drive, the whole thing falls apart," says Charles Yoshimura, a senior at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School and one of three people elected to lead the group. "Being the leader has been teaching me, and everyone else as well, the importance of societal structure and the way communities work."

While every member has ideas of how his or her Minecraft community should develop, the leaders have a vision for their virtual world and need to encourage everyone to play a role in achieving the group's goals. Keeping everyone on task is the most challenging part of his role, Yoshimura says, but he has learned a lot about himself as a result.

"I've really come into my own as a leader through the club and found that I am more outgoing than I thought I was before," he says.

Levin lets the students work through the games challenges, including structuring their community, but presses them to verbalize the reasons behind the decisions they make. With the high school group and with his second graders, each session starts with a review of what they learned in their last Minecraft activity. Levin chronicles his students' gaming adventures on his blog, and is working with Minecraft's creators to bring the game to more classrooms.

While modern games can have some educational value in the hands of a creative teacher, Sroka says video games take away from the social aspect of the classroom.

"Taking turns to answer questions, raising hands, participating, and being respectful of other students, having discussions and conversations about the topic at hand, and respect to the teacher" are important lessons students don't learn from a computer game, she says.

Katie Salen, professor of design and technology at Parsons the New School for Design and executive director of the Institute of Play , a nonprofit that promotes using game-design principles in learning, argues video games are very social activities. Players talk about the challenges within the game and how to solve them, she says.

"I always find it funny this image that people have around this isolated gamer," Salen says. "Kids can be incredibly isolated around more traditional media like books, but we never devalue books because they're a one-to-one experience."

The Institute of Play founded Quest to Learn, a public school with locations in New York City and Chicago, to put its theories to work. The school uses gaming to teach problem solving, collaboration, and systems design.

The trick to using gaming in the classroom is not forcing a lesson into the game, but drawing from the natural lessons the game offers, Salen says. This is what Quest to Learn aims to do with its eighth-grade class called "The Way Things Work," she says. Students in the class use SimCity 4 to build and sustain a civilization. They use the virtual city to test theories on how changes effect a society, she says.

It's not all fun and games at Quest to Learn, Salen is quick to point out. Students still read books, write essays, and take standardized tests. The games are just one part of the school's overall mission: to prepare students for the increasingly digital world around them.

"At the end of the day it's school," Salen says. "Even though they're playing, it's serious."


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High School Teachers Make Video Gaming Academic