Video Game as Learning Tool

While some scholars have begun to treat video gaming as an object of study, others are reconsidering games and game-like technologies—long viewed as a distraction to students—as an effective learning tool for individuals ranging from elementary-school pupils to medical and military professionals.

This summer, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative, in cooperation with the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, co-founded by Duke's Cathy Davidson, launched a competition aimed at finding strategies to help teachers integrate video games and other new technologies already embraced by children into the formal learning process.

Owing to their interactive nature, games actually challenge young children's minds in ways that television, and even books to some extent, do not, says Davidson, Ruth F. Devarney Professor of English and interim director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. For example, a child playing a Pokémon video game will memorize the names of some 500 characters, developing reading and verbal skills. She will nurture her creativity in developing her own character and learn about value by trading with game characters.

Furthermore, in many cases, games are more social than most critics commonly believe, Davidson says. Children will talk with friends about the games and what they are learning. She sees the games, if used correctly, as "a phenomenal tool" for teachers and parents.

Others at Duke are making use of games and simulations, which share similar technology, as training tools in their respective disciplines. In the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE), a virtual-reality theater, director Rachael Brady and her colleagues work with researchers from medicine, the sciences, and the humanities to create virtual-reality programs that, among other things, help researchers explore large-scale molecules and recreate ancient or fictional landscapes.

Jeffrey Taekman, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and assistant dean for educational technology at the medical school, has worked extensively with local videogame developer Virtual Heroes on software that he describes as a "flight simulator for health-care workers." Using a commercial gaming engine, they've begun to construct a virtual hospital environment that can be used to train large numbers of doctors, nurses, and other health-care providers to work together and communicate on cases.

The military has long used simulators, but in the mid-1990s, in response to the rising popularity of commercial video games, it began to look to games for training. It made use of an online editor to create a special military edition of the popular game Doom.

Duke's Army ROTC program has taken on an important role in developing the latest military-training game used by ROTC programs across the country. The game, DARWARS, was introduced three years ago by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research and development arm of the Department of Defense, as a training tool for convoy commanders getting ready to go to Iraq.

Then Master Sergeant David Norby, a senior military instructor at Duke, spent hours tinkering with the scenarios. He discovered that he could set up much smaller-scale training exercises for his cadets. They could convene in the ROTC simulation room to practice basic skills like navigating, firing weapons, and maneuvering vehicles, and to work together on more complicated combat missions before heading out to train in the field.

Enemy forces could be programmed to act automatically, or played by others. This past spring, juniors and seniors in the ROTC program went on a training exercise at Fort Pickett in Virginia, Norby says, and the skills they had picked up by playing DARWARS showed.

Norby passed along his suggestions to DARPA, and the game has evolved from there. The Army is now working on installing the software as its primary simulation tool for its 273 ROTC programs nationwide.

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