Video Games Blasting Their Way Into Classroom Curriculum

11.22.2005 10:26 PM EST

One Chicago school uses 'Civilization III' to teach history lessons.
Jim McIntosh uses video games extensively in his classroom
Photo: MTV News

In the middle of the school day, in room 317 of Chicago's Roosevelt High School last month, freshman Pablo Salas took a break from playing the game "Civilization III" to explain what happened when he told his parents he was signing up for a history class that involved playing video games. "They told me, 'Stop lying. You're grounded.' "

Pablo's punishment didn't last long, because he was telling the truth. In September, he and more than two dozen other students signed up to take an experimental World Civilizations history class, in which text books have been replaced with video games.

The class centers on the 2001 strategy game "Civilization III," which tasks players to build a civilization from scratch, by laying roads, building cities, developing culture, exploring the world and fighting battles. It's certainly an easier game for a parent to swallow than a "Grand Theft Auto" title or "50 Cent: Bulletproof."

The World Civilizations class is part of Roosevelt High's monthly Student Development Day, in which students are freed from reading, writing and arithmetic and get to take lessons in subjects as disparate as ballroom dancing, nature, rapping, Shakespeare, Iraq and pet care.

The day provides a regular bit of horizon-broadening that inspired history teachers and "Civilization" players Tim Meegan and Jim McIntosh to introduce gaming to the school curriculum.

Why are some gamers leaving their girlfriends for Mario, encouraged to play in class and getting a crash course in race relations? Watch Overdrive to find out.

"I think one of the things video games provide students is a sense of an immediate reward," Meegan said. He wanted to tap into that. "I want to use it as a tool for them to discover more about what really happened and who these people really are," he explained. Meegan said the game can help illuminate such concepts as guns vs. butter, supply and demand, and the pros and cons of military strength.

For the first half-hour of the October class at Roosevelt High, the teachers gave a lecture on how some of the activities in "Civilization" relate to the stuff of standard history textbooks. After that, the 29 students took their seats in front of PCs loaded with "Civilization III." They played for over an hour, conquering and being conquered and occasionally even exploring the game's peaceful options.

As he steered his Roman legions to attack his computer-controlled neighbors, sophomore David Cortez recalled his first impressions of the class. "Why on earth are they making us play games?" he remembered thinking. "I thought we were supposed to be learning something, not just playing video games."

Some students were focusing on building trade routes. "We have to protect our resources," said Salas. "We have to manage with what we got and what we don't got."

But most were jumping to conquest. Cortez proclaimed that he wanted to "massacre them all." His Romans had recently broken an alliance with the Americans.

"That's the easiest thing to grasp first in this game," said McIntosh. "I think as they get more experience with the complexities of the game they're still going to have the war, but they'll see that there's other ways to win the game."

Meegan said he prefers to focus on developing world cultures and improving his people's lot through scientific research.

What's McIntosh's world-building strategy?

"Conquest," he said.

"Yeah," Meegan said. "He likes to kill them all."

Games tend to be viewed more as intellectual junk food than something nutritious, but the movement for video games in schools has been on the rise. Much of it is springing from teachers like Meegan and McIntosh, who have been gamers themselves. Deborah Briggs, director of marketing for Firaxis, the makers of the "Civilization" games, said she receives about one letter a week from teachers interested in using her company's games in schools.

Some of the growth can be seen on the blog of Bill MacKenty (MacKenty.org), a teacher at the K-8 Edgartown School, who has pushed for games as teaching tools in his schools. Among other projects, he's experimented with using an MIT-developed mod of the role-playing-game "Neverwinter Nights" called "Revolution" that replaces its fantasy setting with a digital version of colonial Williamsburg.

The blog Silversprite (Silversprite.blogspot.com) also tracks the development of gaming in schools from North Dakota to England.

The students in the Chicago class said that playing games has already helped them in school. Freshman Jonathan Schuldt, for example, said he figured out the answer to a test question about irrigation because he remembered the term from a game. In fact, he now thinks that games should phase books out altogether — and he's not just saying that because his mother works for Chicago gamemaker Midway.

"Books get boring," he said. "Games you can play for hours on end."

Schuldt wasn't the only student to suggest that games might draw them into lessons better than books, but junior Ilsey Martinez raised her hand to object. "I think that books are better," she said. "You're looking at the game, you're so focused on what you're going to do next you don't capture whatever information is in there."

Meegan sides with books, not surprisingly, but he said it would be foolish to ignore games' allure. "If I tell my students to take your 30 pounds of books home and read these pages, 75 percent of them aren't going to take that home and read it," said Meegan. "But if I can tap into their fondness for video games they're going to learn a whole lot more."

Up next, he'd like his students to create timelines of their civilizations and even link up for multiplayer in order to learn a bit about how cultures can interact. Both teachers said they would like to get gaming integrated into their full-time curriculum as soon as next year.

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