Video games are not widely used to develop graduate skills, but they are utilised by some educators to support the teaching of subject material. Using games in such a manner does not preclude skills development, however, and those educators who leverage games to develop students’ disciplinary knowledge understand this potential, as the examples in the following excerpt from Chapter 6 illustrate.
The practice of game-based learning
Steve Connelly is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the UK. Connelly delivers a module entitled ‘Sustainable Development: A Critical Perspective’ to an increasingly international cohort of students. Remarking that he has “never been one for standing up in front of the class and lecturing for two hours”, Connelly describes how his approach to teaching the module incorporated short lectures augmented by student exercises and discussion, with students presenting material based on, for example, their home town. However, despite this enlightened approach to delivering the module, Connelly began to observe a fall in student participation. Furthermore, students were struggling to understand sustainable development as “a political and very contested idea” with complicated underlying policy processes. And so, drawing on his knowledge of problem-based and experiential learning, Connelly decided to try something different:
I took the crazy idea of seeing whether getting people to do something that was supposed to be sustainable, in real time in the class, would actually be a better way of doing these things. The idea of using Cities: Skylines was born, which to me was insane, because I don’t do computer games.
Acknowledging this dearth of gaming experience, Connelly approached learning technologist Bryony Olney for support. Now Higher Education Training Consultant for Pearson Education, Olney immediately thought of the SimCity series (Maxis 1989-), which might offer opportunities to examine sustainability as applied in a city context. However, after some investigation, it emerged that Cities: Skylines (Colossal Order 2015) had been used by urban planners in the US for consultation exercises and planning competitions. So, as Olney puts it, “if it was favoured amongst the urban planning and design fraternity, I thought that was probably quite a good place to start”. With no previous experience of playing Cities: Skylines, the learning technologist was forced to spend many long hours with the game: “a hardship, as you can imagine”. Olney’s goal was to determine if Cities could be used to illustrate the model underpinning Connelly’s module: the ‘Connelly Triangle’, which considers sustainability in terms of economic, environmental, and social concerns (Connelly 2007). And, while certain social factors were absent – the game lacks any representation of religion or ethnicity, for example – the financial and environmental aspects of the Connelly Triangle were better served by the game’s mechanics. Olney and Connelly remained concerned, however, about “what black box coding, what assumptions the game had made”; for example, the assumption that renewable energy sources, while ecologically clean, are always very expensive. A great many more such assumptions are built into the game’s logic, and often not made explicit to the player. Furthermore, aside from the absence of religion and ethnicity, the game necessarily eschews numerous other factors and processes that influence the planning and sustainability of a city, such as gentrification.
However, the limitations of the game as a system – echoing Kurt Squire’s early experiences with Civilization III (Firaxis Games 2001) – became a focus of the learning. Instead of accepting the version of the world that Cities: Skylines presented, the students were encouraged to critically reflect on and discuss how the game differed from reality. Olney summarises the role of the game as follows:
So, really, the use of the game was a lever, it wasn’t the be all and end all, it wasn’t the thing that everything hinged on, it was kind of a pivot point for them to reflect on some of the theoretical concepts that they were exploring in the sessions.
What is interesting to note here is that while Cities: Skylines enhanced the students’ understanding of subject-specific material, the game also allowed them to exercise their critical thinking and reflective learning. This was exactly what Connelly had hoped to achieve: in addition to the “substantive content” he also intended that students developed “the political and the critical understanding of how contested the concept was”.
While Connelly and Olney found Cities: Skylines better suited to their needs, the venerable SimCity continues to enjoy widespread use in education. Vanessa Haddad, Assistant Professor and chair of Liberal Arts, General Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY) Erie in New York, US, has used the game to teach an introductory sociology course, for example. While her experience was marred somewhat by technical challenges – discussed below – Haddad describes the exercise as “semi-successful”. With the aim of helping students understand how factors including law, healthcare, economics, and politics intersect in relation to sociological theory, Haddad observed that students did gain something from playing the game:
Students were able to make connections between very basic functional perspectives – conflict theory, that kind of thing – and seeing what the interplay between social structure looked like in a stimulated environment. And then they had to make decisions about those things. So, it was a good starting exercise.
Heinrich Söbke, of Bauhaus-Universität Weimar in Germany, uses SimCity 4 (Maxis 2003) in delivering a technical infrastructure management course. Just as Haddad’s goal was to illuminate the intersections between myriad factors, the aim here is to help students understand the many interdependencies in a complex system. Using the game, Söbke can demonstrate that controlling technical infrastructure systems “requires the observation of the effects of these interdependencies and immediate reaction to system changes”. Students play the game in groups, with each group’s screen projected on to the wall, allowing everyone in the room to monitor everyone else’s progress. Söbke runs three supervised sessions: an introductory play session, intended to familiarise students with the game; a session based on a given scenario, where the city zones are already laid out; and, a free play session where students must develop their own scenario from scratch, according to a given specification and assessment scheme. At the end of this session, students are debriefed, and the game status assessed. Söbke is satisfied that the students come away with an understanding of infrastructure planning and the need to “react immediately to an imbalanced development”.
Söbke highlights the time pressure under which the students must operate – simulating real-world conditions – while emphasising that teamwork is essential to achieving a positive outcome. One member of the group might deal with the moment-to-moment micromanagement of the city, while another identifies the measures required to keep the system in balance, while still another monitors and reports back on the other groups’ progress. Thus, playing the ostensibly single-player SimCity in this configuration exercises collaborative and communicative skills in addition to the critical thinking and reflection that playing the game normally demands.
Aside from SimCity, Vanessa Haddad uses a number of indie games in her teaching, including Two Interviewees (Mauro Vanetti 2016) and Every Day the Same Dream (Paolo Pedercini 2009). Two Interviewees is intended to expose the often-hidden gender bias that is embedded in the recruitment process, as Haddad explains:
It shows gender bias in interviewing a male and a female character. You have to make the same decisions for both of them and it shows through empirical research what the outcomes of those decisions would be for both the male and the female character. It’s a really great discussion point for students, for showing what they might be up against in the future and of thinking about how they present themselves in the marketplace.
Haddad has used the game to teach rhetoric, for example, in relation to existentialism. As part of her sociology class, she also uses Two Interviewees to help students develop an “empathetic understanding” of concepts such as labour alienation. She believes that in higher education, much of our time is spent talking about terms and concepts, as presented in books, and that students want something more:
Often, I have found students are looking for more of a connection beyond just what’s in our books and what we are trying to present in a lecture. So, I bridge the gap with that game into an emotional understanding of something that’s very Marxist but also a reality that students might themselves face, should they not make decisions that are in line with who they are and their identity.
Sherry Jones is a subject matter expert and instructor at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, Colorado, US, who has utilised everything from MOOCs to escape rooms in her teaching and has made extensive use of games. Back in 2013, Jones obtained a grant to develop and deliver a MOOC that taught rhetoric and composition. What was different about her approach was that, while there was a supplementary textbook for the course, it was not required reading. Instead, Jones suggested over 50 games from which students should choose to play in order to learn about rhetoric and composition. Each week, students were asked a series of questions about their selected game, related to how the rhetoric of the game was expressed. The approach builds upon Ian Bogost’s work on the procedural rhetoric of games (Bogost 2010):
We put [Bogost’s procedural rhetoric] into action but we made it full-scale, so we said, ‘if you examine what this game is doing, considering what the narrative is doing and concerning the specific mechanics that are implemented, what kind of political message is this game expressing, what kind of social message is this game expressing?’
Jones now uses games to teach moral philosophy and cites Fallout Shelter (Bethesda Game Studios 2015) as an example of one of the many games she incorporates into her classes. Inspired by the McCarthyism of 1950s US politics, and the anti-Communist paranoia that fuelled fears of nuclear Armageddon, Fallout Shelter provided Jones’ students with an opportunity to study the theory of egoism, which suggests any action is morally justified if it serves self-interest. In the world presented by the Fallout series, egoism – and its capitalist and corporatist manifestations – has apparently led to the destruction of civilization and, yet, still governs the actions of the surviving few.
Over time, Jones’ approach has evolved from treating games as texts to be studied, to using them as a form of assessment. As Jones remarks, “no teacher should think, yes, I’ll just give a game to a student and they’ll just learn something. Well, they play games on their own, they don’t learn anything”. Instead, Jones teaches her students the relevant theory in a more conventional manner, through lectures, readings, and discussion, then asks the students to play a particular game without any specific direction. The students make notes and take screenshots as they play, assembling a corpus of data about the game. Then, Jones asks the students to identify which of the taught theories is manifested in the game, using the materials they have gathered to produce a report that demonstrates how, for example, the game illustrated a specific virtue. Jones elaborates:
So, we do very deep analysis of the game, but the point of this exercise is that the students were already taught theory before they were getting to play the game. I never tell the students, ‘hey this is a theory you’re supposed to get from the game’. I just tell them, you need to play the game, with a scholarly mind.
Nudging her students towards the upper reaches of Bloom’s taxonomy, Jones finally asks them to redesign their game so that it either represents an alternative philosophical position, or reinforces the philosophy already present in the game by incorporating additional elements. Such elements might include a new narrative, additional characters, or modified game mechanics.
This post originally appeared on Stanford University’s Tomorrow’s Professor.