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Communications of the ACM


The Impact of Console Games in the Classroom

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Judy Robertson

Futurelab recently published a report on the impact of console games in Scottish classrooms. It contains case study evidence from 19 schools in which pupils are involved in game based learning projects, and considers the impact from the point of view of school leaders, teachers and pupils themselves. I find these sorts of studies very interesting because they're about the way technology gets incorporated into educational practice in the every day messy world of schools.  Most of the console games used in the classes — Guitar Hero, Nintendogs, Endless Ocean — were never intended to be educational, and certainly not in school settings.  They have been enthusiastically adopted by teachers who happen notice their educational  potential while playing them at home. Contrast this to the academic development of interactive learning environments which may be carefully designed to solve a specific educational problem but are often sufficiently obscure that they never see the light of day in a classroom. The adoption of common off the shelf games (COTS) in classrooms is characterised by evangelism. Practitioners — once converted — tend to get quite over excited by it all and joyously sing the praises of such projects. This might go some way to explaining Futurelab's  bias in choosing to identify the educational benefits of console game based learning rather than the drawbacks or challenges.

That being said, there are some interesting findings in the report which go beyond the excitement about motivating learners.  One is that teachers became motivated by the projects because they could see what an impact it had on their classes. Initially some teachers were worried about adopting games in the classrooms  because they did not see how it would fit with the curriculum, or they were panicked about not being able to use the technology themselves, or because they were worried about parents' perceptions of it. However, the experience of seeing their learners become enthused about and engaged with their learning convinced many of the teachers that the risks were worth it.  From the perspective of keeping teachers invested in their work and extending their professional repertoire, managing a challenging games based learning project is likely to be beneficial.

A striking aspect of the classroom projects is that the pupils typically spend very little time actually playing the game at school — perhaps five minutes, three times a week. A lot of the classroom activities are based on the game but do not directly involve playing it e.g. balancing a budget for your rock band's forthcoming tour or writing about how best to look after about your Nintendog pet. It seems like a small amount of game playing translates to a lot of motivational "buzz." 

Critics of game based learning in schools sometimes argue that playing games in schools tarnishes children's enjoyment of games at home, that it takes the fun out of it. The children interviewed in these case studies commented that they liked to receive support and advice from their classmates about solving puzzles in the games, and that they liked the increased competition. They also liked being challenged in school. Some children noticed that the titles they played at home were not as good for learning as those at school — perhaps the project taught them to expect more from games?

I'll end on one of my favourite quotes from an interview with an eight-year-old who took part in a project based around Cooking Mama. "I burnt a cake at home and I learned that it's just life — you have to cope with it not going right . . . and the topic helped us with that and keeps us from getting bad tempers." Coping gracefully with failure seems like a great skill to learn at school whether learned through real or virtual baked goods. 


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