Video Games as Effective Educational Tools: A Teacher’s Story
March 25, 2010 53 Comments
Should you happen to cross paths with o DARKBLADE o while traversing the vast world of Xbox Live, you would more than likely find him waging war against the Covenant with a group of teenagers nearly half his age. Ask him why and he’d tell you he’s schooling them, although it wouldn’t be in the way you think.
Christian high school teacher by day and hardcore gamer by night, 37-year-old Martin VanWoudenberg has found a way to successfully integrate a childhood hobby into his grown up responsibilities. He currently teaches English, History, and Law, and has found a number of video games that serve as excellent educational aids to his lessons.
Sometimes the video game influence in his classroom is simple, such as when he uses slides of relevant game characters that fit the current theme. He finds himself calling upon Castle Crashers frequently during the medieval unit and scenes from the Total War series when they’re studying Napoleon.
Current titles are not the only games being utilized in his classroom though. In History for World War I for instance, Mr. V, as he’s known amongst his students, was once able to dig up an old machine and a compatible copy of Red Baron, an immensely successful flying simulation set on the Western Front of the same time period. There was one student in particular who had a knack for it so he was made the Baron. The other students then had to “go to war.” It made for lively, in-depth discussion afterwards, serving as a catalyst for conversation about the Red Baron, his life, and a plethora of topics relevant to that specific military conflict.
The subsequent World War II unit also provided a prime video game opportunity, this time for Call of Duty, a historic first-person shooter.
I assigned students to a nationality of German or Allied… since we don’t pick where we’re born. They did research on their side’s motivations, did propaganda posters, and found horror stories about what the other side did during the war. Then, with very basic training, they were dropped into a COD 2 match against each other, rotating out when killed and a new student took their place. Some were very good at this. Many were terrible, but that’s like real war. Depending on how often they “died”, and how the match went, students were assigned an outcome (dead, wounded, captured, etc). From here, they wrote war journals on their experience, both on before the action, and afterwards. How did they feel? How “fair” was it? There were high emotions in the room, including real shock, surprise, anger, etc. By the end, many really wanted to kill the enemy, despite being very upset at being assigned the Nazi side for example. It was an interesting study in how quickly we identify with comrades in arms and demonize the enemy.
Students are typically not surprised when a video game gets introduced in one of Mr. V’s lessons. After all, Halo and BioShock 2 posters adorn the walls while Hitman, Army of Two, and Gears of War action figures keep each other company on the shelves. There’s even a pair of Modern Warfare 2 night vision goggles in the classroom. The gaming atmosphere fosters the video game discussion during the downtimes, which is evident by the regular meet-ups that occur during lunch hour.
I choose to not spend lunch times in the staff room most of the time, and my classroom is a regular meeting place for students that want to talk and debate gaming. There are students that are sometimes harder to connect with, or that might struggle in class at times. But, when we have a common love and common language, it makes everything else a lot easier too. Rapport has certainly been increased significantly, no question. And, it’s great talking with past students that I no longer teach. They still have a reason to pop in or chat with me in the halls about what I think about a certain game, or how far I got in another one. Having a way to keep those relationships is very important to me.
I taught in an inner-city school for a while, with kids in some tough situations. I had this one kid that just never talked to anyone, and who was really hard to reach. I noticed one day that he had a Mario sketch on one of his books, so I broached a conversation about Mario Galaxy vs the classic Mario. Then we debated Xbox vs Wii for the next few weeks. He left me a note one day with a Mario drawing and the words, “Viva la Revolution” (a nod to the Wii’s early name). Every time after that, when we passed in the hall or he came past the classroom, he’d pop in with a little fist pump and cry for the revolution. I’d come up with a retort, and off he’d go with a smile. It was a little thing, but he opened up with others as well, and I saw him become a far less withdrawn kid. It was evidence of the great power and common bond that you can have as gamers, no matter what the age.
While the male students respond quite well to the video game references, Martin has noticed an absence of the same reaction from his female students. The girls occasionally know who Mario and Princess Peach are, but none of them, to his knowledge, fill their evenings and weekends with any of the more hardcore shooters.
Parent reactions to the unconventional teaching techniques employed in his classroom often borderline on indifferent. Some students have said their parents roll their eyes when they tell them Mr. V plays video games, but most of the time they simply don’t seem to get it. There’s a general lack of interest in the subject and a lack of interest in learning about it. He continues to tread carefully and recognizes no real strong positive or negative parent reactions is a mixed blessing. Along with no issues comes no triumphs either.
Overall, Martin finds his use of video games as effective educational tools to be beneficial on numerous fronts.
There’s an experiential component that you can’t get with other medium. I’ve had students watch war movies and documentaries and be moved by them, but they never experienced the fear and panic of war until they faced far better opponents and heard the shouts of fellow students behind them, telling them to try harder. You need to debrief that sort of thing, but it’s very powerful. It puts them in the experience, and they invest in it a lot more than they might otherwise.
And, as a very simple and practical point, if students are watching the screen for game references and characters, they are likely paying attention to what I’m saying as well. I find classroom management issues are vastly reduced and attention far better.
He plays against his students on Live every once in a while, usually on Gears of War or Halo, but they have to earn that right. When they do, he reports that he typically performs decently, not devastating them but certainly holding his own. If they had to grade his performance after the fact, I’m guessing they would say he passed. And that goes for his unorthodox method of teaching too.
*While you can’t say for certain if you’d ace his class, you can certainly attempt to pass his recently created Hardcore Gamer’s IQ Test. Give it a whirl, if you dare!