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Learning by gaming

For those of us who are first-generation students of video games, two words can take us back to another life: Oregon Trail. Remember? In school, we'd play Oregon Trail on a sticky PC, naming our intrepid video travelers after classmates so we could laugh at their fates. Through us, our characters made choices: Ford the river, or try the mountain pass. Sometimes they lived, sometimes not. The point is, some kind of learning was going on.

Oregon Trail is now nearly 40 years old, but games in the classroom are still considered an unusual teaching choice and are rarely fully integrated. I was lucky enough to grow up with virtual tutors like Spooky, the ghost who taught typing, or Rodney, a raccoon whose endless quest was powered by solving math problems. Students today are even more used to being surrounded by digital environments, immersive worlds and devices that give them instant feedback and access to worlds of information — in their pocket. Why don't we do more to harness that?

It's easy to mock the "edutainment" industry. Even the name suggests a fundamental disconnect, and implies that education, on its own, can't be enjoyable. Those of us who love learning for its own sake can bristle at this, but we have to admit that traditional education doesn't always do it justice. Those devices we tell students to silence at the beginning of class and pretend they don't have? They might be doing a better job at encouraging learning than we are.

"Diamond Age," a sci-fi novel by Neal Stephenson, described a magical book that would adapt to the child reader, filling her world with characters who understand what she needs to know so that she can thrive. Well, isn't that sort of what the iPad and its brethren tablet computers do? To a young child, a portable, touch-sensitive computer can call to life responsive characters straight out of Dr. Seuss or Richard Scarry, authors who were focused on language acquisition, naming strategies and the like. As tablets become more popular and the edutainment industry gets on board, more students will develop expectations of iPad-esque responsiveness and immediate feedback from their learning experiences.

There's a new buzzword making its way through marketers and game designers: gamification. It's an awkward word that, at its best, means taking the philosophies and ideas of game design and applying them to other environments and tasks so they're more enjoyable and more productive. The idea is beginning to make its way into education; it recognizes experiments in learning that educators have been conducting for decades involving everything from classroom role-playing to virtual worlds.

But the experiments of a few teachers and professors aren't enough. There is more convincing to do.

Consider the ways that Colonial Williamsburg excels at using gaming to educate its young visitors. It employs what is known as situated experiential learning to bring children into the story of the colony, especially that of everyday life. Events unfold around you; townspeople stay in character and answer your questions. In some way, you are breathing in history, instead of looking at it in a two-dimensional landscape. This is where gaming meets what we think of as learning.

We want to believe that many students don't read because they're too busy with their smartphones, their massive multiplayer games, and their Xboxes. But these "digital natives" are extremely focused on learning strategies for "World of Warcraft" raids. They acquire the ability to collaborate and take responsibility within a team. They try things again and again, and they get better. They work at play, and they do it in a responsive environment, with characters to draw them into a history and a story as complex as any we teach.

There are so many great ideas emerging from the concept of linking learning and playing games: augmented reality, interactive picture books, serious games (used in everything from military training to flight simulation) and many more. As our technologies change, students can get data at any speed — but knowledge is harder to find.

Still, educators can embrace the magic of game spaces and cultivate the skills that will let our students adapt to a world that is changing as fast as we can imagine it. Embracing play is one way we prepare ourselves for an environment that expects much from us.

We can't overlook the fact that education is already a game, with losers and winners and those who never quite understand the rules. And learning is already about play. Unfortunately, our students aren't always getting that.

Games only work when everyone agrees on the rules, and recognizes the risks and rewards. Conscious work from a player is a must. Embracing some of the naturalistic structures and experiences of games can help us integrate them into the classroom — and that can change how students feel about their role in their education. Maybe this embrace can even allow us to think differently about how we teach: I've experimented with gamification in my college classroom, and I believe it has made me a better teacher.

Games aren't about making things easier; they're about making things harder. As Jane McGonigal writes in her new book, "Reality is Broken," "Compared to games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use."

I don't remember Oregon Trail as being a particularly difficult game. But I still remember it — along with many of its lessons about making the right choices in a rocky world.

Don't we owe our students the skills to wisely navigate the amazing landscapes of the future?

Anastasia Salter is a visiting assistant professor in the University of Baltimore's School of Information Arts and Technologies, where she teaches social media and games, applied simulation, multiplayer game design, and other gaming-related courses. Her email is and she's on the web at

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