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Video Games as Teaching Tools?

It's a familiar argument that video games are "mindless", or that they are simply means of entertainment which keep people from spending their time in more physically or mentally stimulating activities. But what about games as teaching tools?

These days, more and more video games are challenging and exercising minds as well as reflexes. A prime example is Brain Age for the handheld Nintendo DS system, which revolves around brain-stimulating tasks like solving simple math problems, drawing pictures on the Nintendo DS touch screen, and unscrambling letters. The game was in fact inspired by Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, a prominent Japanese neuroscientist1.

Beyond mental exercises, however, video games can also teach moral lessons or encourage reflection on social issues. As far back as the early 90's, the game Chrono Trigger for Super Nintendo/Super Famicom included subtle moral lessons. As a player, take time to help a village girl find her lost cat, and she will testify in your favor about your good character when you are later put on trial. Take and eat a man's lunch, and he'll denounce you at the trial as a thief. Show mercy to a main bad guy, and he'll join your team to fight on your side. The Metal Gear Solid series has dealt with complex issues like nuclear proliferation.

More recently, other games have made social issues the central focus of the game. PeaceMaker2, for example, puts players in the role of trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year, the American video game magazine Game Informer (GI) did a special story3 on the non-profit organization Games For Change4, which helps to organize and promote a community of game designers who are attempting to use interactive experiences to help educate and influence people on social/political topics such as immigration or the environment. One game highlighted in the feature was Darfur is Dying5, which tries to raise awareness about the current conflict in Sudan.

However, games can aid in teaching and learning even if one is not in the midst of playing the game itself. When I was in grade school and high school, when given an assignment to write a short story or a poem, I often wrote about characters and worlds from the video games I loved to play. As a child, I was even inspired to start writing my own book set in a video game world, as my own voluntary project outside of school. Being able to involve the games I loved not only stimulated greater interest in my school assignments, but inspired me to create something new of my own.

When I was an English teacher in Japan, I often used the students' and my mutual love of video games to stimulate learning and an interest in learning. When giving my self-introduction, I brought in video game boxes and magazines from America. Some of the students were amazed to see a video game magazine written in English. Their curiosity piqued, while they couldn't read many of the words at first, they were motivated to try. When teaching young elementary students greetings in English, I brought out my stuffed Mario doll. Students who were shy about speaking perked up when they had the opportunity to speak to the famous Mario.

For older students, I created a picture scene with famous video game characters doing various things and asked them to write sentences in English describing the picture. Some of them were quite creative. In another class, when teaching English phrases used for going shopping, I brought an assortment of "goods" which included video game boxes, magazines, and toys. Students who successfully "purchased" an item in English got to take it back to their seats, where they explored it excitedly. When the topic is something they are very interested in, the lesson can stimulate students' interest in learning as well as their creativity.

Spending too much time doing anything can be unhealthy, and video games should not be a substitute for other necessary physical and mental activities. But they are becoming more and more a part of the global culture, and when used creatively, the possibilities for teaching and learning are endless.

3. November 2007 Issue, p. 52-53.

Rebecca Cataldi is a former Assistant English Teacher (AET) with the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme and now resides in the Washington DC area in the United States.
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