Thursday, August 18, 2011

How Computer Games Help Children Learn: Chapter 6

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Chapter 6 The future: Urban Science

    In chapter 6, Shaffer highlights a game called Urban Science, where players take on the role of urban planners. In some ways, it is similar to SimCity. Many elements of designing a city are the same. However, Shaffer refers to SimCity as a “God” game because players can basically do whatever they want within the game. They can build or tear down at their pleasure. There is no real accountability for their actions nor any collaboration required as part of the game structure. As a result, SimCity does not provide any opportunity for an authentic learning experience or explore what it means to really be an urban planner. Urban Science on the other hand, is designed to replicate as much as possible an urban planning training practicum. Players are asked to view the virtual world through the epistemic frame of an urban planer. Just as in the previous chapters, Shaffer examines how this game allows players to develop skills, knowledge, identities, values, and epistemology that urban planner use to think in innovative ways in order to create a comprehensive plan for the virtual community. The hope of course, is that if players can learn to think like an innovative professional and solve problems in the virtual game world, that they will learn to be able to think like an innovative professional and solve problems in the real world.

    The rest of the chapter, Shaffer talks about his hopes for the future and the role that epistemic games will play in education. For the immediate future, he sees them being utilized in “third” spaces, such as summer camps, learning resource centers or after school programs- basically a place outside of a formal instruction, but also not just “free play”. The focus should be just on learning and not selling games or trying to get students to meet standards. Shaffer feels that as more of these epistemic games are developed, they will demonstrate what happens when you “think outside of the box” and will put pressure on schools to make needed changes to how they approach teaching.

    My final thoughts on this chapter is that Shaffer makes a very compelling case for looking to games as a way to help students prepare to become innovative professionals in the future. My only concern is that all the games that he discusses in the book still don’t seem to be widely available yet, which raises some questions since the first addition of the book was written in 2006. He does talk about commercial games that are available, but then points out all they are not really epistemic games. In all the case studies, he talks about the dramatic and measurable improvement that the participants seem to have after playing the games. So if the games are proven to be this effective, why are they not available yet?  My guess is that the games weren’t ready for market yet. They probably had a ton of bugs and didn’t have the look or feel of commercial games. In order to get the games ready for market, Epistemic Games probably needed to raise a boat load of capital. Now the investors probably want a return on investment, so when the games do become available, they will probably become commercial games. It seems the best way to test the games is to have a huge number of people play the games. If it were me, I would put then up on the internet and make them free for everyone.


  1. Games have taken a jump recently allowing for the kids to move from "users" to "programmers" It used to be very difficult to make the games, but fairly easy to use them. Now with easier computer languages and web versions students can share and program their own games.

  2. Learning in new ways, ways of thinking rather than just learning facts for tests, these were the points that really called out to me. While Sim City helped students see cause and effect relationships, the games talked about in this book can help them learn to think and see a bigger picture. These games were more in-depth, real and applicable to their adult lives. “We have to start preparing children – all children, rich and poor, at risk and gifted, urban, suburban and rural – for the challenge of innovative work” (188). Education is/has changed and we need to change as well and teach our students to think and apply, rather than to memorize and regurgitate.

    I agreed with Pieter that it was a shame these games weren't available, but I think it is our style of teaching that needs to change. Maybe plugging in a few games might help, but that's the bandaid rather than the cure. We need to move forward faster than we are, and try to keep up with the students and technology.

  3. The games may not be available right now but we can provide opportunities for argumentation and debate.

    We can bring professionals into our classrooms or own our field trips and change the tone of our experience from observation to active, authentic participation.

    Keith, you keep mentioning Scratch. I have what I consider a "nice" set of units for teaching programming. It starts in 5th/6th grade with a carrot patch (a tarp grid in duck tape). Students talk about the commands needed to get the bunny to pick up carrots. We try several rounds and in the course of the conversation, begin to discuss the iterative nature of programming and the need for randomness.

    The next unit focuses on Scratch. Students modify or create games based on their ability. Here students experience a larger palette of commands and objects to operate on.

    Next, students, who by this time have and MLTI laptop, use a program embedded in the Maine Explorer program. They review the idea of programming, increase their skills (now the bunny gains and loses energy) and are finally challenged by a bunny run by the computer.

    Finally, Students have their own design project in StarLogo TNG.

    Students are very engaged, I have no problem tying this to B2 of the science standards (Skills and Traits of Technological Design). I see now that the missing element is professionalism.

    How hard would it be to get grad students from UM or some other college, to help my students back at stage one. Don't you think it would be inspiring for my elementary students to work with college students, maybe even real game writers?

    At first, I felt frustrated by the continual, "this isn't currently available.." comments. Now I feel inspired to look at what I am doing and see how to kick it up a notch.

  4. I agree with Laura's comments. I'm excited to try both the Government and the Economics simulations/games available on the MLTI image this year. They both tie into my curriculum, but I would like to offer them as open ended as possible to the kids and see what they come up with and find as a result of their 'free play'. An experiment!