Games are increasingly being taken up in the classroom, but can they really be useful for teaching children ethics?
A Norwegian teacher has been using Telltale’s video game The Walking Dead to teach his students about ethical dilemmas. Teacher Tobias Staaby and his students played through scenarios in The Walking Dead, took anonymous surveys about which action was the most popular and then discussed the results.
This begs the question of how useful video games really can be in education. The answer is this: the video game can theoretically be the most powerful tool used to teach, but only when used with delicacy.
Having games as part of education, however, is the wrong way to look at the situation. What is required is that education is a part of the game.
The most valuable feature of a video game in the role of educator is that playing the game is a voluntary action. To enforce a game in a classroom – in the same way that a sub-par teacher might have their students copy sentences word-for-word from a textbook or put on a film and then leave the room for an hour and a half – can completely destroy the potential for learning if it’s the wrong sort of game.
A level of intuition with the controls, a manageable difficulty curve, and an engaging story are probably the three most important factors when deciding on an educational game. A bad teacher could choose Dark Souls, a game notorious for its difficulty, as a teaching aid just as another bad teacher could inappropriately choose V for Vendetta to teach a class of 13 year olds about fascism. One must choose the correct entry level for the right subject, regardless of whether it’s a book or film or game.
A second and perhaps more important aspect of the video game as a medium for education is that a video game, unlike any other form, has the player as the main character. In the literary classic Heart of Darkness the reader is not Charles Marlow, but in Spec Ops: The Line the player is Captain Martin Walker. The actions Walker takes (or that you make him take) have a much greater effect on the player’s sense of responsibility. There are countless reviews mentioning the emotional conflict players go through when performing a particularly horrible act of war required to progress through the game: using white phosphorous to make their way through what they thought were enemy soldiers but who were in fact civilians.
It is here the game directly addresses the player: “If you were a better person, you wouldn’t be here”. In acting violently for gain (in this case, progression through an area) the game raises moral questions that it expects the player to answer. While the game is not perfect and certainly not suitable for a classroom it’s a clear example of how the video game can emotionally invest in its audience. As any teacher knows, once a student of any age is invested in a subject, then education and entertainment become one and the same.
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