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Computer Games and
Learning

By John (JT) Thompson

Computer games AND schoolwork

Have you ever wondered why kids who rebel at doing homework can play video games for hours on end? We are puzzled especially when considering that the skills needed to master a video game are the same skills needed for educational pursuits -- problem solving, communicating with other players, and developing strategies. Schoolwork that's perceived as difficult does not interest them, yet hard games requiring the same skills enchant them. Why is that so and what can we do?

I'm calling this article "Hard Fun", because no youth would spend any time on a game that did not challenge him or her to the limit. A young person typically invests over 40 hours to master a video game. That investment of time lets us know what dedication kids can apply when properly motivated.

My mission is to build on that interest in computer games so students can be as good in academics as they are in computer games. With the right direction, our student's enthusiasm for computer games can be extended to academic achievement. First students can discuss games why they enjoy them. Students can develop their analytical skills by reflecting and sharing their experience playing games. Then students can study how computer games are constructed and make "pen and paper" designs of new games. This reverse engineering can make academic studies more relevant. They can then build computer games of their own design in a practical application of their math, writing, and problem solving skills.

Contructivism

MIT Professor Seymour Papert developed the theory of "constructivism" to explain why children learn more by doing, as opposed to abstract rote learning. Paula Hooper, a Ph.D. graduate of MIT, is using "constructivism learning" with an African-centered community school, Paige Academy in Boston. The school was "organized to support a problem-solving approach to learning, with extensive reliance on the arts as a natural form of expression and exploration".

Africa game
Click the image to
play this "Africa"
game.

A student named Shamia learned how to make a rainbow by writing a computer program that automatically drew half-circles. In the process she learned about fractions, angles and geometry, not because she set out to, but because she was determined to make her rainbow. Shamia used a computer program called Logo to make the problems concrete and meaningful. Logo was designed by Professor Papert to enable young students to build things and in the process apply abstract concepts in math and programming.

Enlightening uses of interactive media really excite me as a developer of interactive media tools. Lingo, the computer programming language behind Shockwave, allows creative people who may not be technically oriented to create interactive experiences for the Internet. Lingo permits more people to express themselves without being limited by their knowledge of programming. Can students use Lingo and Shockwave to build their own games? First let's get a better understanding of why games are so popular.

What works

Let's briefly examine the popular game Pokemon that is all the rage. The cartridge plays on a $70 portable computer equipped with captivating sound, animation, and color. The developers of Pokemon succeed in breaking challenges into small pieces that keep the player involved for the 80 to 120 hours it takes to collect the 150 Pokemon characters. At every stage, "Professor Oak" is available to explain what is happening. The player gains a sense of accomplishment by "training" each character. Once trained, the Pokemon characters are traded with other trainers. Players practice economics by winning "dollars" that are traded for Pokemon accessories such as vehicles, tickets, ropes, maps and other tools required to surmount the challenges. A marketing blitz of must-have trading cards, board games and toys supplement the computer game.

Every level of Pokeman presents new challenges, new scenarios, new characters and new hurdles that the player must overcome in new ways. The tasks become more difficult as the player progresses. There is constant immediate feedback on performance using negative and positive reinforcement. Players share their experiences with their friends and help each other beat the game by swapping strategies.

What parents can do

Parents can translate Pokeman or any other computer game mania into academics by encouraging children to discuss various games so that they can describe, analyze, and compare the thinking processes, strategies and mechanics employed in the games. You may be surprise at the depth of knowledge your children have about their games. By talking about it both you and your child will be more aware of the mental discipline required to move up the levels in a game. A child is discouraged by challenging work at school can be encouraged by pointing out their demonstrated ability in beating a game.

Children naturally include what they enjoy in their creative drawing and story-making. My sons (age 9 & 7) draw and write to augment Pokeman characters and recreate game scenarios. They avidly trade cards and calculate points. Their imaginations will not allow them to blindly digest Pokeman as it is, they are compelled to add their own flavor. Parents can encourage the naturally tendency for children to envision their own versions of computer games. You can explain to them that there is an entire industry behind the game itself and they can aspire to a career as a game maker. In future articles I will describe the various career options in the game development industry and what school preparation is needed.

What schools can learn

One of the differences between academic achievement and computer game mastery is the immediate reward for meeting the small progressive challenges in computer games. In school, the rewards have less immediate value and require long range vision to realize the tangible benefits. However, the long-term process of game development more closely mirrors the persevering road to real life success while still dispensing the immediate reinforcement of games. Another difference is the audio, visual and kinesthetic sensory neurological links that computer games stimulate. Traditional academics do not make use of these neural pathways. By building games students can learn with a greater variety of senses. Of course, just as instruments are needed for writing, new tools are needed for creating computer games.

What is Shockwave?
Click on limb and drag to rotate.

Shockwave is the primary way to present interactive games on the Internet. The majority of web users have already encountered Shockwave. What is not widely known is Shockwave can be a used by young people to create interactive material, such a games. Let's take a closer look at the three facets of Shockwave. The first the web site www.shockwave.com, where people can enjoy free games, cartoons and music in the same manner that one can now tune a radio to receive freely broadcast music.

The second facet is Shockwave, the player. The Shockwave player is a means of viewing interactive material such as games. Disney, America Online, Microsoft and other companies use the Shockwave format to play interactive media. Much the same way that one can now choose between cassette and CD audio formats, The Shockwave format consists of animation, graphics, and sound that can be played in a straight linear mode. Shockwave's Lingo computer language makes possible on-screen buttons that the user clicks to alter the sequence of events just as the remote control permits the user to program a CD player.

The third facet is the Shockwave Construction kit for students. With it a student can create their own games, improve existing games, or build an interactive illustration of a homework assignment. Students can integrate visual arts, music, and movement into their academic subjects using Shockwave. The kit is a special version of the same Macromedia Director program used by over 300,000 professionals to create games and other interactive content. Students now have access to the same powerful tool used to create material for the www.shockwave.com web site. To learn how to use the kit students can start with the documentation and tutorials that come with the kit. They can also use of the several dozen books on the topic (search for "Macromedia Director" on the www.amazon.com web site). There are also many web sites, such as my own www.JohnHenry1.com, that provide advise and learning examples.

Finding information about the kit is a bit of a challenge. It is buried on the www.macromedia.com web site under the code name "Director 7 K-12 Edition." Challenge a young person who loves computer games and has access to the Internet to move to the next level by getting this kit and creating their own games.

The Next Level

Students have three powerful strategies for learning from computer games. They can discuss and analyze the games they enjoy. Using simple pen and paper they can design their own games. Finally, they can turn their game sketches into the real thing using the Shockwave construction kit.

To give direction and focus to the aspiring game creator, in the next installment I give a behind the scenes view of the game industry and what skills are needed on a game development team.

John (JT) Thompson is author of the Lingo programming language that drives Shockwave for San Francisco-based Macromedia Inc.

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