Video Games In College Classrooms Are Becoming More Popular, But Are They Useful Learning Tools?

There are always a few oddball course listings in a college's catalog (underwater basket weaving, anyone?). But as they make increasingly more frequent and prominent appearances, it seems that video games are becoming a part of college curriculums everywhere. As reported by Engadget, video games in college classrooms are becoming increasingly popular learning tools, but as with all new things in education, uptake of this medium varies by instructor, institution, and program, and not everyone is an early (or even late) adopter. And the usefulness of video games depends heavily upon how they're made and used, so be careful not to get taken in by the cool factor, and sign up for a waste of a class.

The upside of having students work on making their own video games is the sheer interdisciplinarity of that kind of project. You have to learn about code, animation, design, art, and more to get even a relatively simple game off the ground. There is also some potential for pre-made games to be educational if they are created and deployed carefully, as for simulating a city's conditions in the context of a history class. As gaming company founder Clark Aldrich told U.S. News and World Report, these days "every medical student is likely to encounter a game or simulation in the classroom, compared to about 80 percent of M.B.A. students, 40 percent of undergraduates, and 20 percent of high school students." That's a bunch of gaming going on in the name of education.

Not everyone is sold on video games in the college curriculum, though. Some educators (not to mention parents and citizens) worry that video games contribute to violence, and become distracted from their educational potential for that reason. And there's a huge relevance difference between med students using a "game" to simulate surgery and high school students being left to play Sim City by a substitute teacher who's supposed to be helping them learn Advanced Placement U.S. History, of course.

Worse yet, just critiquing existing video games falls into the trap of fun but kind of silly projects that invite students to write a ton of fluff, and over-value their own opinions. A few thousand words on Mortal Kombat X may be fun to write, but if there's no clear goal and your work will not be carefully graded, then it's just as pointless as writing a free-form essay on a television show, commercial, or even a classic book.

At the end of the day, video games may indeed be just like film — a new form of media that must struggle to gain its ultimately rightful footing in the academic world. But, also like film, not all video games are created equal. A student's project arriving in the form of a video game makes it neither necessarily better nor worse than other types of work, neither technically nor aesthetically. And with grade inflation running rampant at American colleges, the overall question of retaining high academic standards is a much more pressing one than resisting new technology just because.

You also can't just expect any old video game to serve an educational purpose. Without careful input from and collaboration with seasoned educators, even the most beautiful and engaging game will remain just that — more entertainment than education. And a lack of data regarding the educational outcomes from video games should make you suspicious of anyone making big claims about the effects of merely playing pre-existing games. Sometimes it's better to be safe than sorry, especially when you're paying thousands of dollars to learn something, and taking the easy way ("just play this game!") sounds way too good to be true.

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