The ongoing debate over the relevance and usefulness of online gaming as an educational tool may come to abrupt end on the heels of a recent scientific study, which announced that players on the online science game site Foldit had unlocked one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the structure of a protein crucial to understanding how AIDS develops. The game was created by animation and game design students at the University of Washington with help from the university’s biochemistry department. Gamers who played Foldit were able to predict the structure of an enzyme called retroviral protease, an agent that allows the HIV virus to multiply. Knowledge of this structure is a monumental step forward in creating medications that may halt the advancement of this devastating disease by stopping the way the enzyme multiplies. This is a startling development because it can have major ramifications for world health and possibly save the lives of millions. According to the UNAIDS Report, 2.6 million people around the world became newly infected with the HIV/AIDS virus in 2010. For these people and the millions already suffering, gamers—not research scientists—may have provided a life-saving piece of information.
Gaming has long been a contentious issue in higher education. It has been of particular interest to instructors in online college courses, because it can provide a different method of introducing students to course material and, in some instances, can be a non-intimidating way of breaking down some of the hesitance and confusion students new to online education may have about their online work. Some faculty, though, automatically reject online gaming as an entertaining but ultimately un-serious activity not suited for truly academic endeavors and, whenever the topic arises, cast a jaded eye at online gaming, sighing as yet another technological development is touted as key to better class instruction.
However, many education and technology experts increasingly argue that online gaming can be an effective aid to instruction. In their paper The Instructional Power of Digital Games, Social Networking, Simulations and How Teachers Can Leverage Them, Eric Klopfer, Scot Osterweil, Jennifer Groff, and Jason Haas of the Education Arcade at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argue that faculty members need to expand their understanding of online gaming beyond Nintendo, the Wii, or simple online games like mah jong and solitaire. The ability to create computer simulations that mimic real-life scenarios can help students process and respond to course information. They report that gaming, typically defined as an activity that includes both “an interactive virtual playing environment and the struggle of the player against some kind of opposition,” allows students to assimilate information in order to create strategy. These activities involve comprehension skills, critical thinking, and decision-making.
For me, a professional historian, the example the MIT group provides of the online game Civilization is persuasive. Civilization is considered an “immersive” game, similar to The Sims and World of Warcraft, because it allows players to assume new identities and create a virtual community. The latest version, Civilization IV,asks players to assume the identity of a settler in the year 4000 B.C. and then build a city, government structure, culture (including religion in the latest version), and all the other elements of society and state-building. Players must collaborate with team members to advance their civilizations.
As I struggle to teach students the components of civilization and train them to evaluate the relative merits of major civilizations throughout time, this online game can actually help me show students how both deliberate and random events can trigger changes in historical development. That is a concept that is often difficult to convey, but with the Civilization online game, students can experience it for themselves. And, as Rafael C. Alvarado argues in his essay, Overcoming the Fear of Gaming: A Strategy for Incorporating Games into Teaching and Learning, faculty can adapt games to suit their instructional goals or assign it in conjunction with a textbook that students will have to use to measure the veracity of the game itself.
The benefits of online gaming extend beyond newer options for content delivery. Gaming can also help students transition from traditional learning to online learning because they are already familiar with the technology, from their participation in social media and other online activities. For example, the results a 2003 study of college students at different kinds of two and four year colleges, conducted by the Pew Research Center, show that all of those surveyed reported to have played a video, computer or online game at one time or another. Seventy percent (70%) of college students reported playing video, computer or online games at least once in a while, and 65% of college students reported being regular or occasional game players.
That was 8 years ago. With the addition of Facebook, Twitter, and other online social media activities, chances are that very near 100% of today’s college students are familiar with online technologies on at least a basic level—perhaps more so than their professors. Using online gaming technology in the classroom utilizes student skills as a method of advancing student knowledge—one of my primary goals as an instructor. My students might not discover the key to solving the world’s HIV/AIDS crisis, but I am certainly not going to dismiss any new route to learning that might have such unlimited potential. And for students, this means that online learning might become just as much fun as any of their other online activities.