A lesson in gaming education

Some of the brightest minds in video games gathered early last week in New York to discuss a huge topic in the gaming industry: the power of education in gaming.

The U.S. Department of Education and Games for Change hosted the day-long Games for Learning Summit on April 22 to discuss ways video games can have an impact on learning.

Games have been used for educational purposes ever since the late 1980s. I played “Mario Teaches Typing” a lot in elementary school, and games such as “House of the Dead 2” have been converted to typing exercises over the years. I even played video games in a college class — one of the first journalism courses I took at the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities involved playing a journalism simulator built using the “Neverwinter Nights” PC role-playing game as a template.

Yet top education and gaming minds continue to look at educational games. The White House sponsored a game jam — in essence a two-day crunch session where developers make a game from scratch — for education games last September. The Office of Educational Technology is building on that to hold regional Education Game Jams, with the first one held in Austin, Texas last month.

These games involve a lot of the brain teaser-type problems you can find in puzzle games such as “Big Brain Academy,” which is available on the Nintendo DS and Wii. These games present challenges such as math problems, words to type, questions to answer or logic puzzles to figure out so players can advance in a game.

The end result looks a lot like the sort of games I remember playing, only with a lot more content and shiny new graphics. Games such as “The Mystery of the Ancient Doohickey,” a platform-type game that teaches pre-algebra concepts created at the Austin Education Game Jam, can give players a taste of education masqueraded as a fun game to play.

That’s a concept commonly seen in a lot of games, nowadays. Mythology and Classics professors were surprised at how closely the “God of War” series mirrored Ovidian storytelling in the mid- to late-2000s. Koei Tecmo routinely provides historical synopses in its “Dynasty Warriors” and “Samurai Warriors” games, which are often a treat to pore through. Even games like the “Professor Layton” series offer fun little hints and brain teasers to expand a gamer’s knowledge.

As an interactive medium, games are powerful tools. That’s why education games pop up everywhere, including at Woodson Kindergarten Center. Let’s hope more developers find ways to sneak more lessons into games.

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