Play-based learning is used in the Early Years to provide children with an intuitive learning environment suited to activities that little kids do best – playing around with stuff.
This tends to be phased out around the end of year 3, as we move into constructive activities and even, ‘oh noes’, direct instruction. This is something one the children I look after lamented now he is in a year 3/4 class at his new school, “We never play anymore”. Boo hoo, little Johnny, boo hoo. You don’t think I don’t not want to not play games too, yeah?
With gaming returning to an acceptable past time for adults – just listen to Kevin Butler¹ at this year’s E3 – shouldn’t this be reflected in our schools and curriculum? Many of the kids I taught respond to questions like “What’s your hobby?” or “What do you do in your spare time?” with some form of console or another. Many child care centres, and even libraries, these days have consoles available for visitors to use. And if you want to get into economics, I’m sure you can go and find your own figures on just how much this industry is worth.
Games in the classroom do present some problems, mostly to do with moral panic. Firstly just about “games” in general – with some of the students I’ve worked with not allowed to complete teacher-set homework on Mathletics at home because carers won’t let them². Others more serious and understandable moral panics about inadequate classification, excess violence, and depictions of sexual and criminal activities. The ethics and other social issues surround video gaming culture and industry is probably enough to design a unit (or three) all on your own – but what I am interested at the moment is what recreational video games are out there that could provide the stimulus material for an entire trans-disciplinary unit on there own.
As this Dueling Analogs strip illustrates games today are becoming more and more complex – not only in gameplay and graphics – but in background stories, character development, dialogue, and even the style or genre of storytelling themselves (also known as interactive fiction). These components should make it easier to take a single game and safely stretch it into multiple learning areas.
Below the fold are just some ideas:
The Warcraft Series Blizzard (Namely WarCraft III, it’s expansion, and the monolithic monster that is WoW): Permission to flip-flop. This was pretty much my inspiration for this concept. And unsurprisingly I’m not the only one – enter the WoW in Schools project (via edurealms). WoW, or any MMORPG is going to be a serious issue in the classroom. Unless you are able to get a dedicated server, you are exposing the wee ones to a plethora of perverts and asshats. Even if you get past that issue, Warcraft does have a non-binding, but M rating here in Australia, which does mean it probably won’t be accepted at your local primary school. The reason why Warcraft makes it here, while other MMOs, RTS and RPGs don’t is that the Third series really did bring in some original and pretty stunning storytelling to accompany the graphics upgrade. The whole concept of warring ‘races’, defining good and evil, and the struggles of individuals and nations means there is a lot of SOSE content to investigate here. Even by following the campaign, students could do the English concepts traditionally associated with deconstructing narratives told through books and movies – examining the plots and the characters involved. Also just like Star Trek, Warcraft fans can now revel in having pretty well defined languages for Orcish, Troll, Elvish, Dwarvish and Humans. Warcraft is also ideal in that it involves a lot of offline issues, Warcraft has been the focus of many-a moral panics about ‘gaming addiction’ in the media, it has inspired epidemiologists with the Corrupted Blood Incident, and also sparked internet memes such as Leeroy Jenkins! which could be used to win brownie points with parents by having discussions about the real-world impact of successful interactive fiction.
Main KLAs: SOSE, Maths, & English
Tricky KLA: H&PE – investigate the adverse effects of sedentary lifestyle brought on by excessive MMO gaming
Portal Valve: So I got this for free a couple of months ago, and it comes with special commentary, just like a DVD. Robotic turrets and homicidal AIs aside, Portal is relatively non-violent, but is still probably more suited for secondary school. Portal was another great game when it came to creating an interesting an intriguing back story. Not so much characters, as there is pretty much the unexplained test subject (your avatar) and GLaDOS, although the latter might be enough for a psychology dissertation in itself (herself?). Portal fits in well with the Technology KLA because it is such a designed game. Students could design (and redesign) their own Portal levels. Other learning areas could be brought in by examining the ethics of live product testing (SOSE) and learning about robotics and artificial intelligence (technology, energy & materials science). Like any interactive fiction, there is the English component, the genre of Portal is important – in that it suits itself to guides and protocols (procedural texts) as well as the style of creating a specific disquieting mood of serenity and paranoia.
Main KLAs: Technology, Science & English.
Tricky KLAs: Arts – make a multimedia commercial for Aperture Science’s latest invention.
Spore Maxis: I’ve talked about the science of Spore before (more than once) and even how to use it in a science classroom despite its misgivings. Now I have actually bought the full version and given it a swirl (take a look at my creations), I can think of quite a few more applications for it. The creator widgets provide such a cool, easy, intuitive way of constructing 3D representations of not only animals, but also buildings and vehicles – making it quite ideal for Technology/Design coursework too, or even visual art. Students could not only deisgn their alien lifeform according to set criteria (e.g. forest-dwelling mammalian carnivores) but also display their tools and dwellings as well. The unit could be based on anthropology, survivalism, or even space exploration itself. The video-capture features in the program also mean students can create some pretty cool multimedia projects as well. So while Spore totally failed at being a good evolution simulator, much like Maxis’ other games, it’s a pretty good simulator and tool for building pretty much everything else. Bonus points are also awarded for being a G or E rated game that no parent can complain about (just nobody mention that gameplay can change during online use). Other arts are also brought in as the game also incorporates some basic music concepts, dancing rhythms and gesture. It also brings in languages with Spore-speak!
Main KLAs: Technology, The Arts, Science.
Tricky KLA: English. Until the final space experience, this game is pretty weak on storytelling and narrative. This makes it ideal for learning non-literary genres. Students can practice writing reports (weee!) that describe their creatures and other creations.
Sim City Series Maxis: Pretty much most of Maxis’ “Sim” games could land in here. Sim City is being included because when I was in Primary School we used the original Sim City while studying a unit on Urban Planning. I don’t quite remember much about urban planning, but I do remember the joy of watching my Sim’s houses destroyed when Godzilla showed up. Last time a looked at a recent version of Sim City I was blown at the level of statistics and analyses that now appears to be going on. Like Spore, it’s probably weak on English because it is devoid of any serious coherent story (Do they still have the frequent newspapers that update you on your city?), but pretty much all the other KLAs are covered; data-based maths, art and technology/design of cities and buildings, and Environmental Science which can be extended into SOSE and Health.
Main KLAs: Pretty much everything.
Tricky KLA: Languages. Learn how to describe your city another language. Where do you live? What are the sights? What is the weather like?
Civilization series Firaxis Probably rivalling Maxis in the ‘let’s cover everything’ department for semi-non literary gameplay, Civilization obviously lets kids experience some pretty cool stuff from history, and has its own in-built encyclopedia. Students can learn about the role of important figures in history, as well as the way in which technology, governments, the military, trade and more recently, religion and culture have influenced civilization. Of course the teacher will have to work at keeping anachronistic misconceptions setting in, I still think it could be a valuable and fun tool for some children to experience. The Colonization game can also allow an investigation of specific historic events, as Americocentric they might be.
Main KLAs: SOSE, Science, Technology
Tricky KLAs: Maths. Examine how the computer calculates civilization economics. What strategies improve economic standing? What strategies negatively affect economic standing?
Mario Brothers franchise Nintendo (Or pretty much any platformer) Your more traditional games still offer about the same level of stimulus as a movie, TV series, novel or even a Shakespearean play (ooh that might offend some people). Here we have an engaging story of two working class brothers drawn in to rescue a kingdom and its princess from the grips of reptilian monsters from another dimension, and are constantly faced with horrible realisation that the princess is in another castle. Yes, this is another English unit – plot, characters, and a genre. Most arcade games also have specific art-styles, and Mario is no exception. It’s always good to remember that a popular and iconic game like Nintendo’s mario franchise also allows for that important, parental support-garnering offline aspect. Mario is the face of Nintendo, and probably the most recognisable video game character ever (rivals? Pac-Man?). Older kids can look at some of teh more perplexing social issues brought on by the Mario franchise, like why, if Bowser keeps kidnapping his girlfriend, does Mario continue to go out and enjoy kart racing with him on the weekends?
Main KLAs: English, The Arts, SOSE (real life)
Tricky KLAs: Science. Earth and Space. Investigate the properties of blocks, rocks and lava – they are in these games often. (Okay I’m reaching…)
Anyone have any other ideas for iconic (or not so iconic) recreational video games that could be used in the classroom?
¹ Psst… He’s not real.
² I am skeptical that there is not more to these stories. Like, maybe little Jenny does not explain that it’s for school, or has been repeatedly caught doing non-homework activities under the pretense of ‘doing homework’ on the sole family computer (How is Dad supposed to cap 70 if you keep doing that, sweetie?)