Playing to Learn: Video Games in the Classroom

Some say computer games can be effective teaching tools.

June 13, 2008— -- Learning how neutrophils attack infection in the bloodstream isn't exactly the most gripping topic for your average high school student, but the Federation of American Scientists hopes to change all that — with video games.

Advocates are enthusiastic about the promise of video games in schools, but some educators are wary.

Last month, the FAS launched "Immune Attack," a 3-D interactive video game designed by immunologists, teachers and learning scientists that aims to teach students how the immune system works.

The goal of the game is for the player to save an ill patient by navigating a "nanobot" through the blood stream to retrain nonfunctional immune cells. Throughout the game, players learn about the key aspects of immunology and must apply their knowledge in order to advance levels.

FAS president Henry Kelly thinks video games have enormous potential as teaching tools simply because they make learning fun.

"The goal is to hook you," Kelly said. "You can reach people who think they hate the subject. The minute you get swept up in the thing, you sort of forget that you hate science."

The Future of Education?

"Immune Attack" is still in its final stage of development and is not on shelves yet, but can be downloaded for free at their website. The game has already been evaluated in 14 high schools across the country with nearly a thousand more educators registered to evaluate it in the next phase of development. The reaction among teachers who have used the game has been positive.

Woodbridge, Va., high school AP biology teacher Netia Elam says the video game brought the concepts of immunology to life for her students.

"[With text books] they might read something, drag vocabulary words onto paper, or use their math, but they're not really integrated into it," Elam said. "Because they are playing video games, they were really engrossed in what they were doing. They took on more of an interest and more of an initiative to pay attention."

Elam, who has never used video games in the classroom before or taught immunology, was pleased with the results.

Rick Kelsey, the director of technology at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, D.C., says the game has been effective in engaging young students in complex subject matter.

"When you see kids, 14-, 15-years-old, learning immunology, the same thing a medical student is learning, but they're grinning and smiling and they can repeat what they learned? It's the future of education," Kelsey said.

The 'Halo' and 'Grand Theft Auto' Effect

But not everyone is convinced that video games have a place in the school.

Some critics worry that relying too much on video games and other interactive simulations to teach will only hurt students in the long run. They argue that it will leave students ill-prepared for higher education where reading textbooks still make up the bulk of the work.

FAS stresses that "Immune Attack" is supplemental learning material to be used along side textbooks. But Henry Kelly says he understands why some teachers might be wary.

"The teachers are right to be skeptical," he said citing the reputation of video games as a lazy hobby. "There is concern that it's going to be distracting and a waste of time."

Eugene Provenzo, a professor in the University of Miami's School of Education, says that educators need to be careful how they use video games in the classroom.

"You have to take into account that any type of video or computer game is in fact a simulation," Provenzo, who deals with issues involving technology and children, said. "Simulations aren't necessarily what the real world is like. It has terrific potential … but it is not neutral, and may not be accurate."

Provenzo is not against using video games in the classroom, but believes that teachers need to vet games beforehand and be sure students understand the nuances of using simulations.

"The issue is not whether you should use them or not, but that you should use them with an understanding that technology is not neutral, but comes with a point of view, a perspective," Provenzo said.

Some teachers are wary because there are a number of violent video games on shelves these days. Kelsey says because of this, video games get a bad wrap in school, but it's something he hopes will change.

"The minute you say video games, a large portion of people think of 'Halo' or 'Grand Theft Auto'," Kelsey said, referring to two popular and violent video games. "A lot of teachers haven't been convinced yet and of course they're skeptical a lot of time, there still needs to be a reform movement before traditional education understands what it's all about."

Kelly hopes the FAS can be at the forefront of this reform movement. The FAS has been working on the concept of using video games in the classroom for the past seven years and in addition to continuing to develop these games, hopes to convince the federal government to allocate resources to this field of research.

"We're trying to get the federal government to recognize that this is a big and important research area," Kelly said.

The FAS has been lobbying Congress to pass the Higher Education Authorization Bill, which includes a provision about allocating resources to digital initiatives in education, that could include video games. The bill has cleared the Senate but has yet to be passed by the House of Representatives. Kelly thinks that "Immune Attack" is just the beginning of an education revolution.

"We hope this is just the first step. The ideal situation is over the long run to really make it possible for anybody to learn any subject quickly, inexpensively, wherever they are," Kelly said.