By Edwin McRae
Teachers need to stop talking and start playing. That’s my angle on education, and that’s why I’m an advocate of video games in the classroom. But after talking with Andrew Patterson about video games in education on Wednesday, I was perturbed to come across the statement made by the New Zealand Principal’s Association on the educational value of video games - or lack there-of in their opinion.
Having recovered from my chalk-dust induced coughing fit, I’ve managed to boil down their argument to this: Video games can cause more harm than good because some hardcore gamers display limited vocabulary and concentration problems. Association President, Patrick Walsh is quoted as saying that "There are lots of adverse effects of playing video games, and simply just by putting an educational tag on it, doesn't in our view demonstrate that it has any educational value at all."
It takes a very broad statement to encompass an entire industry like that. Quite a feat of linguistic engineering! So in response, here’s the thinking of a ‘gamer teacher’ (me) who is seeing the benefits of video games in his own classrooms.
First up, no-one in their right mind is saying that Call of Duty and Halo have educational benefits. I’ll probably offend a few fellow gamers in saying this, but I’d tend to relegate the entire first-person-shooter genre to the ‘pure entertainment’ shelf. And, having a quick glance at other game types, I’d never use Grand Theft Auto in my classroom, just as I’d never do a film study on ‘Saw’ or a novel study on ‘American Psycho’.
“Games can definitely be good for the family,” says Patricia Vance, president of The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which assigns video game ratings. “Oftentimes I think parents feel that they’re not because video games in the media are portrayed as violent and hardcore games tend to get the lion’s share of publicity. But parents also need to be comforted knowing that E for Everyone is by far largest category [of software]. Nearly 60% of the almost 1700 ratings we assigned last year  [fall into this category], which means there’s a huge selection of games available that are appropriate for all ages.”
Okay, now that we’ve banned the hard-core games from our classroom, what next? Are the remaining 60% a better use of time and effort than the good ol' pen and exercise book? Let’s see: I understand that around 30% of kids are verbal-linguistic learners. Teachers talking, reading and writing on worksheets - this works really well for them. That’s lucky, because even in this new and exciting technological era, most Kiwi kids are doing this for 80% of their day at school; listening, reading and writing. So, what about the other 70% who learn differently? Visual and kinaesthetic learners are all about seeing and doing.
It’s for this forgotten 70%, the ‘middle and lower band’ students of the country, that the Play-to-Learn is so vital. These kids needs to be learning on the job. And that’s where video games come in. 30 kids can’t trail a police detective around in order to get hands-on research for their crime writing assignment. So instead we play the CSI Adventure game and get to virtually be a crime scene investigator; to gain insight into the life of a political refugee we play Against All Odds, where we’re forced to overcome the challenges of fleeing our homeland and making a life in a new country; we run an apparel factory in a third world country in order to explore, first hand, the issue of sweatshop labour; or we build and practice language skills with Clockwords or FreeRice.
In my experience, the benefit of these kinds of games are two-fold.
The kids are engaged. I took an educationally ‘switched off’ class of mostly Polynesian and Maori Manurewa teens and turned them into ‘active learners’. After learning how to survive an interrogation at the beginning of Against All Odds, they were hooked. They had to solve the next puzzle (avoiding border guards) and then the next one (finding the best form of transport out of the country), right on through until they’d earned their American Visas and were safely ensconced in their adopted homeland. Two full hours of concentrated exploration on the topic of refugees. Not bad for a class in which a chair-throwing brawl broke out in the second week.
And the second benefit? Games demand that the player practices their knowledge immediately and repeatedly. Can you imagine a teacher getting a student to redo a reading comprehension worksheet SIX TIMES until they get it 100% right? Not without some serious bribery or coercion - and a total breakdown in the teacher/student relationship. But in a game the player will tackle a puzzle time and again without hesitation. In gaming it’s called ‘Grinding’. In education it’s called ‘Reinforcement’.
The results? That class of Manurewa teens: no more fights, learning became fun, and their test scores came second only to the Top Band class (hand-picked brainiacs) in the school.
All because I stopped talking and started playing. And with school-wide WiFi and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) becoming standard place in schools over the next few years, less talk and more play feels like... I was going to say ‘the way of the future’, though, in fact, it’s the way of the now. The students are ready. Many teachers are ready. Let’s hope the principal’s association catches up with the ‘play’.
Edwin McRae is an English teacher at Garin College, Nelson and runs thefictionengine.com, a website aimed at promoting the benefits of video games in education .