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Games could boost education

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The Shuttleworth Foundation is investigating the potential that digital game-based learning holds for education – and is finding that video games can be useful tools both in educational environments as well as in informal learning contexts outside of the classroom.

In 2007 video and computer games raked in more profits than movies and music combined. Games are growing in popularity with people of all ages and rapidly becoming more complex with cutting-edge technology being employed to drive the likes of online play and realistic graphics.
In the 1970s and 1980s there was much interest in the possibilities that computer games held for education. Back then computer and video games were a new phenomenon so not enough people had access to them. This educational interest fell by the wayside, however, until being revived in recent years.
Computer games are engaging and can be motivating to play. Most children of the current generation play them – whether at home, on a family computer, at friends houses on gaming consoles, or on their mobile phones.
By introducing gaming as a tool for learning it may be possible to present children with a fun and familiar environment for discovery and problem solving. A framework for game-based learning could exploit the affordances of games such as role-playing, simulation and collaboration.
Given the ubiquity and connectedness of mobile phones in South Africa, this is a medium that the Foundation believes can be exploited for youth gaming.
Steve Vosloo is communication and analytical skills fellow for the Shuttleworth Foundation and is leading the organisation's research into game-based learning. He recently co-ordinated the first Games and Learning Indaba which took place both in Johannesburg and Cape Town during 2008. This workshop was the first step in analysing the role that gaming potentially has in education.
"The aim of the Indaba was to explore the state of gaming amongst youth in South Africa, identify opportunities for using games, and barriers to their increased use, in education and learning," says Vosloo.
Part of the Foundation's aim is also to identify local factors that differentiate Africa from the rest of the world in terms of gaming, and to capitalise on those differences if they support learning.
"While there is interesting and relevant research about games and learning coming out of the developed world, not much research has been conducted in South Africa," explains Vosloo. "Our context is significant in that we have a particular education system with its own strengths and weaknesses.
"Our society is multilingual and multicultural and the access to technology for our youth is varied and vastly different to that of the US, for example. It is therefore important to understand the opportunities, challenges and findings here."
Professor Alan Amory, a well known game studies researcher from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) presented his research on social constructivism in games-based learning in the South African context that looks into game design, development and research conducted with previously disadvantaged youth in the country. It was found that the highest levels of learning are achieved when there is social dialogue between game players as opposed to learners playing on their own.
The research concludes that people learned not from the games but rather with the games as they tried to solve problems together.
Marion Walton, senior lecturer at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT) also presented her research into informal learning in online games. This research, entitled 'Beyond communities of practice: Understanding informal learning in online games' was largely centred on the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft, and the guilds formed by players in the game.
While it has been suggested that gaming can be a powerful motivator for communities of players to collaborate and share information, Walton found some guilds to be largely exclusionary and exposed the challenges that face learning in an online gaming context.
For example, educators do not want to see the forming of player communities that replicate offline prejudices. At the same time, they must be realistic and not expect online communities to be Utopian in nature. These challenges was discussed in light of the recent xenophobia attacks in South Africa.
Other challenges identified during the Indaba included copyright laws in South Africa, the cost and logistics of distributing games, lack of funding for game development and research, the need for a more active game development industry in SA, and the challenges of incorporating gaming into classrooms.
A point of discussion between participants at the Indaba was that learners are often more technically proficient and computer literate than their teachers. One ex-teacher said that "they also tend to leap-frog their educators in terms of the technology curve."
Overall there is still much work to be done in researching the potential of gaming for education.
"This is still very much an emergent field," says Vosloo. "Our research suggests that 'learning games' face the challenge of competing with commercial games for kids' attention. There are also attitudes in education surrounding gaming that must be tackled; most educators need some convincing that you can learn from playing and that there is more to video games than first meets the eye. However, the Foundation is not suggesting that game-based learning is a panacea for education – but rather that it has a role to play alongside other forms of learning."