Monday, January 15, 2007

A Timeless Question, or, Gaming to Learn


The BBC reports West Nottinghamshire College teachers used Atari's Neverwinter Nights to reach "disaffected" students and improve their literacy and numeracy skills. Research on the project found that successful learning of key skills had tripled, to 94%. Over 700 learners played the modified game, which cost $25 million to develop from the original game.

Long before I got into video game theory I was working as a instructional designer for e-learning tutorials (my lawyers tell me not to disclose any further information on my employers). Anyhoo, I read a lot about the use of 'interactive' tools like games for learning, with many e-learning folks in favor and traditional book-learning people against. The whole design of online learning is geared toward mainly basic skills such as grammar, writing well, etc. because the quick delivery method is posited to lend itself well to lower-wage, perhaps non-English learners without the time or money to go to the community college for courses. Furthermore, rather than pedantically telling the learner the parts of grammar, these tutorials largely teach through examples, scenarios, questions, and tests, thereby immediately putting all knowledge into action.

We have known for a long time that there are many kinds of learners, tactile, auditory, by-experience... Most of these courses work on all levels, comprising audio elements, learn-by-doing activities, etc. And to me, games always seemed an excellent avenue for this.

Later, I read a chapter in the Video Game Theory Reader on an experiment at MIT where a few games were developed with loads of money to teach university-level students. The most compelling game was one that allowed students to better understand the obscure physics theories that could not be experienced in life through game mechanics. Instead of memorizing a theory, they were feeling it as they hurtled through space. Genius, I thought. Too bad most places do not have a third of MIT's budget, or $25 million to mod Neverwinter Nights.

But do we need that much money? Are we spoiled forevermore by the graphics, interfaces, and engines of commercially-produced games, to the point that anything lesser would be more remarkable for its cruddiness than its lessons? Why did that college need to use such a sophisticated game to teach area and volume anyway?

Perhaps the best route for delivery of teaching games would be through the same companies that make textbooks. If the cirriculum endorsed a game made by a familiar name, they would be in the schools and the bookstores. But I cannot envision a game labeled McGraw-Hill Ryerson, can you?

5 comments:

Photendoist said...

lol at the 25 million to mod NWN. The game itself didn't even cost half as much to develop. The smart man would have contracted the students themselves to build the game as part of a semester long project. Lord knows MIT kids got the know-how to do so, if only the producer had the know-how to match.

Al said...

Sorry, the 25 million was spent by the lesser-known West Nottinghamshire College, not MIT. Do not know how much MIT spent, but then again their games were a lot more complex.

And I doubt the kids would have had the skills. They were there to learn very basic literacy and numeracy skills, remember. And computer developing requires at least somewhat sophisticated abilities in those areas.

Photendoist said...

im talki9ng about MIT students themselves. I'd assume they already have the basic skillsets like literacy...

NWN actually has a VERY user friendly modding toolset that has kept the original game alive for almost a decade. For someone to spend 25 million dollars using a free user-friendly toolset screams of misappropriated funding...

Joshtek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joshtek said...

I'm guessing that the $25 million was an estimate for either the original cost of Neverwinter Nights or the cost of the engine and toolset. If it were the cost of producing the mod then I'd expect it to be in pound sterling and not dollars (and be much much less).

I think Nigel Oldham (not Oldman) was trying to say that it is much cheaper to modify an existing engine than to try and make your own, as they could benefit from the money Bioware had already spent on development.

West Nottinghamshire College does have several computer science courses, including the HND Computing course where people programme in C++. However, the modification was made by the tutors and an in-house techy (although other people were involved in testing and voice acting) who form the subsidiary Altered Learning (see http://www.alteredlearning.com/ for details).