Modern Education

One high-school teacher incorporates video games into his curriculum to help students learn.

by / October 2, 2006

A group of teenagers click a mouse and begin "bombing" England. Across the room, the English prime minister -- a teenager looking grimly at another screen -- attempts to figure out a counterattack in the midst of World War II.

These teenagers aren't at home playing shooter games on the Xbox. They're in a high-school classroom learning the dynamics of World War II in a game called Making History. Their video-game-savvy world history teacher, David McDivitt, incorporates video games in his history and sociology courses at Converse, Ind.'s Oak Hill High School.

McDivitt says using video games modernizes the education process to the meet the digitized world of teenagers, who view technology as an essential part of their lives.

"I see a future where students are engaged in technology at school because that's what they do outside of school, and that's how we live our lives; we're always wired to something like an iPod or cell phone," he said. "We need to move in that direction because that's where our kids are."

Let's Bomb Canada
For his world history course, McDivitt puts away the textbooks for a week and his class plays Making History -- a World War II simulation game where students assume leadership of countries during that conflict. Governing their countries individually or in teams, students negotiate treaties, build armaments and maintain their country's domestic needs. The game has a real-time scoring system that evaluates each country's performance and compares the students' decisions to actual events in the war. Thus, students controlling England during the war can actually compete against Winston Churchill and see how their economic, military, and international and domestic policy decisions measure up.

Teachers can choose from six different scenarios referring to a specific period of the war. One scenario, "The End of Diplomacy," begins after agreements made at the 1938 Munich Conference collapsed. Each scenario begins at an accurate moment in history, and students must navigate the economic, political and military events of the times, compiled in an enormous historical database by Professor William Keylor of Boston University. The game includes the correct national debt, military size and pacts formed between countries, such as Germany's nonaggression pact with Russia. McDivitt supplements Making History, which meets state educational standards, with in-class discussions and lectures.

As a result, children live history instead of reading about it, said McDivitt, who found his students making treaties and planning attacks in school hallways.

"The excitement level that game brought to the kids was incredible. Both years we played the game, the kids would play after school, [at] lunch and in study hall."

After the first year of incorporating Making History into the classroom, McDivitt knew the video game was successfully engaging his students. Yet he wondered if the students were actually learning more, or more effectively, through the video game than with traditional teaching methods, such as textbooks, lectures and in-class discussions. The following year, McDivitt surveyed 110 students from five classes: Three classes used the game, and the other two used only textbooks and class discussions. After collecting tests and essays, McDivitt found that students who played the game generally scored better on tests, especially on geography and multiple-choice questions. Yet McDivitt was most impressed by how well students who played the game demonstrated their knowledge of the events in essay questions.

"What I found most impressive was the essay question and the depth of understanding the kids who played the game had versus kids who learned solely from the textbook," McDivitt said. "I found that the game group was more thorough, and you might say thoughtful in their follow-up writing assignments."

The game brought excitement to McDivitt's classroom and helped engage students who had poor grades and were generally not eager to learn.

"Good students are good students no matter what, but what the video game did was bring up the poor student, who doesn't work well in school," McDivitt said. "When we went to the computer game, those kids were just excited and along the way they engage in the learning process without knowing it. It might be a little trick, but that's OK."

Kristin Thompson, one of McDivitt's students, said playing Making History in class was a refreshing break from the traditional classroom setting, and it enhanced her comprehension of World War II.

"I did enjoy playing Making History -- not just because it got me out of class -- but because it was fun, and I got a better understanding about World War II by acting it out instead of just reading it in the textbook," Thompson said. "It was difficult at first but after I caught on to how to play, it was fun and a more interesting way to learn."

The Gaming Classroom
Muzzy Lane, the company that designed Making History, is betting video games will soon become a substantial part of a teacher's curriculum. The firm is developing a game called Making Money that will teach entrepreneurship, stock market strategies, and business policy and management. It also is creating a game called Living History that will teach what life was like in different periods of history.

Making History is catching on at various schools nationwide. It's used at the University of Illinois, Salem State College, Southeast Missouri State University, the College of Charleston, and Des Moines Area Community Colleges, as well as several high schools.

The National Education Association (NEA) accepts that video games can have value in an educational setting, but does not endorse or advocate any particular video game.

"Computer games and simulations can be an important part of the educational experience," said Reg Weaver, president of the NEA. "Many educators are discovering and lauding the benefits of incorporating computer games into their curriculum. Technology has changed the classroom exponentially."

In October 2005, an NEA representative attended a forum on educational games presented by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The forum had various panels that addressed what benefits video games offer in an educational setting. Topics at the conference included the difficulty in adopting new instructional models like video games, the need for new forms of assessment, resistance from educators, attitudes about games, uncertainty about the effect of games on learning, and preparing teachers for new roles with new skills.

There was strong consensus among summit participants that many video game elements can be applied in education, according to the FAS summary of the event. According to the report, some of the major findings of the forum were that many video games require players to master skills that are in demand by today's employers, and that a program is needed for research and experimentation to enhance the development of educational games.

"The strength of some games is that they support complex thinking and require thinking about how to manage resources and how you sequence events," said Kay Howell, vice president of information technologies projects for the FAS. "Those are very important skills when you get to real jobs -- skills hard to teach in a typical classroom setting."

However, Howell said video games used in classrooms should have a curriculum built around them so that teachers can use them more effectively.

McDivitt's Vision
Because of the success of Making History in his world history course, McDivitt decided to add The Sims -- a video game where players create characters with different personalities who interact with each other under one roof -- as part of his sociology course for the 2006 school year. McDivitt is hoping the game will help his students better understand social interaction.

McDivitt sees himself as a practical educator updating his teaching methods in accordance with children, whose lifestyle and worldview have been shaped by the computer. In his blog, McDivitt tells other educators not to be afraid of video games and points out that the "digital teenager" has altered the definition of traditional, and now it is a question of whether educators will update their repertoires to address that change.

McDivitt hopes that by the time his daughters are in high school, teachers will use technology more than they do today. But for now, he is forging into uncharted teaching territory and hopes he is helping to pave the way for a more technologically oriented classroom.

"I am prepared to fight the good fight, to convince the naysayers that not all games are a mind-numbing activity," McDivitt said. "Gaming is a way to excite the unexcited, to engage the disengaged and to educate those who fight education."
Chandler Harris Contributing Writer