Mind Games: They No Longer Carry a Negative Connotation

March 20, 2012

The age of electronics and technology has changed the world in rather profound ways, and game playing is no exception.  And those impacts don’t simply rest in childhood.  The entire population seems to be walking around tethered to smart phones, iPods, iPads and/or laptops.  We are never off the clock at work, and our children are presented with a never-ending supply of games and amusements online.  Instead of Hide and Seek or cowboys and Indians, children can let their mouse and/or joystick do the heavy lifting of playing soldier, wizard or king.  And these games come with a pretty impressive array of flashes, bangs and noises, too.  Similarly, adults like to decompress with mindless but engaging mobile app games like Angry Birds.

As electronic games have matured however, they have also become serious.  That doesn’t mean they have lost their challenge or pleasure.   Rather, they are taking a lead role in some very serious pursuits, including scientific research and teaching/learning methodology.  Faculty members here at GHC have known for several years about the use and benefit of online games for teaching and learning purposes.  In fact, games have become the hottest learning tool around.  And there are multiple permutations of them.  That’s why 2011-2012 has become the Year of the Game at Georgia Highlands.

StudyMate screenshot

StudyMate screenshot

A faculty member can create customized games and study protocols pulled from his/her class syllabus using several software programs.  Common for this purpose are Respondus and its add-on StudyMate, through which one can create quizzes or study exercises.  Games range from the ones students may already know from television, such as Jeopardy, to more complicated online activities.  They also include matching games and crosswords.  These games all use a database of questions and answers to make the various games.

FoldIt screenshot

FoldIt screenshot

The more creative and advanced approaches include those that require in-depth subject knowledge and idea development.  Fold-It, for example, is such a professional development game.  It focuses on folding proteins, a scientific field that uses the game for research.  Very simply, folding proteins are protein structures that assume their functional shape by combining an uncoiled or random string of protein that reacts with amino acids to produce a well-defined, three-dimensional structure with a specific function.  If some parts of functional proteins fail to fold into a native structure, the remaining proteins may become toxic.  Scientists believe this condition may cause such serious diseases as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.  As scientists play the game applying new and experimental techniques, they come closer to answers about the diseases themselves and possible vaccines or treatments.

In such applications, games take on a seriousness none of us could ever have anticipated.  Scientists engaged in the game aren’t place-bound, increasing the number of possible players and the breadth of expertise.  When running through the Fold-It protocol, researchers try different scenarios to resolve some of the disease outcomes.  Fold-It was developed by the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington.  Developers say game scenarios keep players engaged for an extended period of time.  And the more collegial a community they can keep interested the better chance they have of finding solutions to difficult problems and creative ideas to apply to scientific challenges.

Simulations are an outgrowth of electronic games, and they also serve a serious purpose.  Jane McGonigal, who wrote “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can Change the World,” believes that games can run a number of scenarios before their players unleash a particular solution or protocol to others.  She has famously said, “Play it before you live it.”  The simulation game World Without Oil is one example of this philosophy.  The game presents a scenario, laid out in weeks, of a world oil shortage.  It describes what is happening in communities, to the stock market and to other countries, and allows game players to respond with ideas about handling their personal crises (how to heat their houses, get to work and provide food for their families in an environment where all costs are escalating dramatically).

Entire classes can play this serious game.  Besides developing analytical thinking skills, the exercise also teaches students the value of planning, conserving and interacting creatively with others.  A blog captures all players’ ideas and thoughts as they work through worsening conditions.

Such a scenario is similar to the nursing simulation GHC students do on Medi-man, a prosthetic, computer-run patient programmed by faculty members to react unexpectedly to rapidly changing medical conditions.  Students must know how to counteract negative reactions to administered drugs or respond to emergency situations like heart attacks.  Preparing students for the unexpected in a controlled classroom setting takes away some of the fear and uncertainty they might feel when they first enter a real clinical setting.

Civilization screenshot

Civilization screenshot

Civilization is another example of a serious game that teaches a variety of skill sets through the historical perspective of a number of civilizations.  This game is available through retail outlets, but has also been used in school settings.  Players may choose a particular civilization and strive to take it from the dawn of man through the space age.  The goal is to become ruler of the world by establishing and leading the chosen civilization.  Players wage war, facilitate diplomacy, discover inventions and technology.  They interact with history’s leaders in the process, learning, for example, about an era’s agricultural techniques, its government and social mores.  It is another game of analytical thinking, strategy and history.  Anyone who has sat in high-school or college history lectures is probably envious of students who get to play visually appealing game to learn the subject matter.

There are also in-class, non-computer games that span the entire course or term.  One – Reacting to the Past – was developed by a history professor at Barnard College.  In this game, students take on the roles of historical figures.  The instructor assigns roles and sets up the parameters of the game.  All players/students must represent their characters accurately – not necessarily parroting the words of that character in a given situation, but staying true to the character’s core beliefs.

So George Washington might believe that the colonies need to separate from England, but he might decide not to cross the Delaware River one cold December night.  Not only do students learn diplomacy, analytical thinking skills, and a broad range of historical information, they also hone their research, writing and public speaking skills.  This game reflects the realities of life, so while one person may play the game brilliantly, he or she may still lose because of the actions or decisions of other players.  Nevertheless, that person will make an A.  So in addition to learning many academic skills, the player learns life lessons.

Reacting to the Past, despite its lack of ubiquitous technology, may be one of the most broad-based, in-depth learning experiences in the pedagogical repertoire.

In fact, gaming as a legitimate educational endeavor has grown enormously during the past five years.  Pulitzer Prize-winner and former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, Thomas Ricks, wrote in the January 2012 Foreign Policy Magazine, “… Scientists have identified some benefits from gaming, ranging from improved self- worth to augmented surgical skills. In the foreign policy arena, video games can and should serve as a powerful tool for educating civilian and military personnel about war and foreign affairs.”

This movement toward educational, serious games has prompted colleges and universities to offer programs in game development.  Southern Polytechnic State University now has a major in the subject.  So does Savannah School of Art and Design.  Georgia Tech and the University of West Georgia both offer courses in game development.  It’s a growing field and its enthusiasts are quite passionate about it.

But there’s still an element of fun, no matter how serious the purpose of a particular game is.  Puzzle lovers just get a charge out of a brain teaser.  And the age of mobile apps and computer games has created a new generation of gamers.  A number of these more serious games have been adapted for mobile applications.

At GHC, our faculty members are enthusiastically embracing the potential of games as a learning tool.  The games they are creating in StudyMate integrate with learning management systems.  The college as a whole is moving from Vista to Desire to Learn, which offers more flexibility and will support the games that are being incorporated into the classroom.  Meredith Ginn, assistant professor of communication, uses a variety of games in her classes to sharpen critical thinking, team-building, memory, time-management, verbal and non-verbal communication skills.  She says there are online resources to teach practical life skills like financial literacy, resume building and job interviewing.  She also uses prizes or awards extra points to keep students competitive and motivated.

Southern Poly has designed several serious games, and will work with businesses and educational institutions to design custom software specifically for a subject or project.  Members of the Distant Learning Advisory Group will be discussing opportunities to work in partnership with Southern Poly.  Jeff Linek, director of eLearning, and Diane Langston, director of learning support, plan to hold lunch-and-learn sessions with other faculty members to discuss the creative use of games in curriculum.  They may also collaborate with Southern Poly to develop online games suitable for interdisciplinary approaches to curricular subject matter.

Marketers have discovered the lure of games – and not just gaming companies who develop action and war games.  Jimmy Buffett launched a game on Facebook when he released a new album. Players could earn points toward his music or promotional items, giving them a discount on what they purchased.  Television networks have a variety of games for their most popular shows, available on the network websites.  The games provide one more way to keep viewers engaged.

Back in the classroom, educators are discovering that using games improves test scores.  Material is retained longer by students.  For incoming students who must pass COMPASS tests to place in college classes, games on the GHC Tutorial Center web page are a useful and engaging study guide. Try the Online Practice COMPASS Quiz at this link. It presents two practice games for math.

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