2009 NMC Summer Conference Proceedings

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Computer Games in the Liberal Arts World: Connecting with Peers

May 19th, 2010 · No Comments · Papers

Bryan Alexander (NITLE)

How can higher education best engage with the learning capabilities of digital gaming? This question is one of the most fascinating topics in contemporary instructional technology. In this discussion we offer a history of recent, realized projects in one corner of academia. A series of liberal arts colleges and universities have been implementing gaming on campuses in several ways, building up over time into a multi-campus collaborative. We offer a typology of these uses. The National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) has helped facilitate this cooperative, and we discuss its role here as well.

The past six years have seen a renaissance in connecting gaming and teaching. Games have been considered as teaching devices for centuries, as far back as seeing chess as a political or military learning tool, or the development of Kriegspiel by the Prussian military staff. Twentieth-century militaries used simulations to plan for war. Political science and other fields simultaneously developed role-playing, counterfactual, and other games to think through decisions and other affairs of state.

The digital age has continued this gaming and teaching engagement, adding many computational affordances to this theme: easy copying, networking, graphics, virtual worlds, and so on. Computer gaming first grew into an industry during the 1980s. After a crash the field rebuilt itself in the 1990s, then took off, growing into a massive global economic sector. The gaming industry persists and even grows through our current time of economic crisis.

It is to 2003 that we can trace our current pedagogical concern. James Paul Gee published What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Palgrave), sparking a wave of excitement and exploration. Gee argued that modern games are often pedagogical instruments, teaching players how to use and improve at play. The gaming field offers varied and complex teaching forms, Gee showed, identifying more than one hundred pedagogical principles at work in a variety of games: embodied action and feedback, projective identity, edging the regime of competence (in Vygotskian terms), the probe-reprobe cycle, social learning, role playing, “fish tank” tutorial structures, and even strategic self-assessment.

Other writers have followed Gee’s path, such as Marc Prensky, Henry Jenkins, Mia Consalvo, John Seely Brown, and Eric Klopfer. Academic practitioners have developed games and reflected on their practice, including Constance Steinkuhler, Kurt Squire, and Ian Bogost. Academic programs have emerged, like MIT’s Education Arcade. An annual conference is held in Wisconsin, while gaming and education tracks have become widespread across academic computing meetings. Libraries both academic and public have engaged gaming on several fronts, including collection development and community outreach.

What have these various explorers learned? Jason Mittell (Middlebury College) summarized recently that games are now viewable as platforms for learning, on several levels. First, they clearly teach a variety of skills, from improved hand-eye coordination to numeracy to teamwork. Sometimes this is the outcome of an educational game, as with math skills in DimensionM; otherwise it is the result of playing a non-educational game, as with the advanced numeracy taught by playing EVE Online, with its elaborate economic systems. In this way games serve as delivery mechanisms for desired content. Second, games are used as simulations of real-world, academic topics. For example, MIT’s Education Arcade built a simulation of 18th-century American colonial politics, called Revolution, for use in history classes. The state of California ran a major simulation exercise called The Great Shakeout, in order to teach citizens how to better respond to an earthquake.

Third, Mittell sees games for learning as serving political functions. They can be analyzed for their explicit political impact. Games with overt political content are growing in number. Examples include the Dean Game for that candidate’s 2004 presidential run, UNESCO’s FoodForce, or Molle Industries’ Oiligarchy.

Screen shot from Oiligarchy

Screen shot from Oiligarchy

Political games can also be used to support community engagement and activism, active citizenship being a classic goal of liberal education. Fourth, games are used in objects of study in various media studies curricula. We have seen courses about gaming under various media studies rubrics, while game content has been incorporated into classes covering non-gaming topics in fields as diverse as English literature, psychology, and cultural studies. Fifth, classes sometimes create games or game content. Consider this a constructivism form of using gaming in classes, where students construct their learning actively, under the guidance of faculty. (NITLE videoconference brownbag, January 2008)

It is important to note at this point that “gaming” is a broad and broadening field, although popularly conceived in quite narrow terms. It is easy to characterize computer gaming by the synecdoche of a single example, notably Grand Theft Auto or, for the historically inclined, Mario Brothers. In fact the industry offers a wide range not only of titles and platforms, but even genres. We can find evidence for this in the Pew Internet and American Life Project study from 2008, which surveyed United States teenagers for their preferred game types. Even a casual glance at the list reveals a series of distinct forms: puzzle games vs first-person shooters, simulations and virtual worlds, massively multiplayer social games and driving games.

Pew Internet and American Life Project 2008- Games played by teens

Pew Internet and American Life Project 2008- Games played by teens

Game scholarship has explored this growing diversity in ever-increasing detail. Indeed, the fact that “game studies” exists is noteworthy, even essential for understanding the intersections of gaming and higher education. A body of scholarship already exists as of this writing. Titles such as Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, eds.; MIT Press, 2009) demonstrate a multidisciplinary approach. Scholars at traditional liberal arts campuses contribute to this field, as with Depauw University’s Harry J. Brown, and his Videogames and Education (M.E. Sharpe, 2008).

A parallel development to scholarly publication has occurred in the library world. Academic and public libraries have been pursuing games along several lines, as we first noted earlier. First, as stewards of humanity’s cultural heritage, libraries have been exploring game collection development. This involves a series of problems, such as how many game platforms (hardware) to maintain, when to use emulators, how much secondary literature to aggregate, and so on. Second, in their tradition of public outreach, a growing number of libraries host game nights, where the local community is invited to play games. Third, as librarians have historically created content (scholarship, finding guides, catalogues, etc.), some libraries have created computer games. For example, a University of Michigan group has developed (and continues to iterate) the Defense of Hidgeon, a medieval fantasy-themed game about information literacy. For all of these library-gaming connections a literature has appeared – for example, Gaming in Academic Libraries (Amy Harris and Scott E. Rice, eds.; ACRL, 2008).

Gaming and liberal education: a tentative taxonomy

So much for the big picture of higher education in general and its engagement with computer gaming. Now we turn to our narrower topic, the intersection of gaming and liberal education. In 2009 the subject has advanced enough to yield a range of examples, from which we can hazard a tentative typology, some principles, and anticipations of new developments.
How does the liberal arts campus differ from other academic institutions in this area? We would do well to note the commonalities. Liberal arts colleges and universities share concerns which should be intelligible to any campus, including concerns about best pedagogical practices, how to support gaming technologies, and how to fit gaming use into the tenure/promotion/review processes.

Given that common background, in order to assess the differences, we need to review different models of what liberal education is. Most sound familiar, and many overlaps exist, but the differences lead to distinguishable policies and practices. Here we draw on Jo Ellen Parker’s schemata, delivered with an eye towards informatics and digital technologies (Jo Ellen Parker, Academic Commons, 2008). One such model emphasizes learning for learning’s sake. Undergraduate education may be supported to allow students and faculty to follow inquiries wherever they lead, and practical, productized outcomes deemphasized. Another, related to this, emphasizes certain forms of pedagogy, such as active learning, or close faculty/student collaboration. A third model turns outward, and focuses on preparing students for life in an energetic democracy, to be engaged citizens, and also to take up leadership roles. A fourth model focuses not on function but identity, seeing liberal education as what liberal arts institutions do.

It is not our purpose today to select one of these, nor to assess their relative merits. Instead we draw on these distinctions to suggest the conceptual and practical diversity underlying liberal education. Different implementations of gaming on campus can connect with different choices and assumptions about what that campus values in its educational mission.

Along a similarly classification-minded line, we can now offer another. We have seen enough instances of gaming in the liberal arts that cataloguing them would challenge this session’s time limit. Instead, we would be better served by developing a taxonomy of current practices. The list follows:

  • Faculty research
  • Faculty/staff game creation
    • Classes and learning
    • Professional games as learning objects
    • Professional games as objects of study
    • Students creating game content
    • Students creating games

These categories are determined by several conceptual assumptions. First, note the distinction between faculty research and classroom teaching. The liberal arts tradition emphasizes a continuity between the two, which we honor here by breaking down cases between those poles. At the same time research and teaching are generally distinguished in all of academia, and their respective institutional underpinnings play a key role in considering gaming.

Second, we draw on the history of academia’s use of other media to tease out different uses of content. Namely, we echo film studies’ separation of creating vs. analyzing media.

Third, different populations play varied roles in the taxonomy. Faculty are both teachers and researchers, consumers and creators. Staff here includes academic computing, librarians, and the rest of information technology.

Let us explore each category.

Faculty Research

We mentioned the growing field of academic game studies earlier. Liberal arts campus faculty have entered this field. One example comes from Harry Brown, Depauw University.

Video Games and Education by Harry Brown

His Videogames and Education (M.E. Sharpe, 2008) explores this intersection from a humanities perspective. A quick glance at the book’s contents shows an engagement with a series of classic literary concerns, at least in its first two sections:

  • Part I: Poetics
    • Chapter 1: Videogames and Storytelling
    • Chapter 2: Videogame Aesthetics
    • Chapter 3: Videogames and Film
  • Part II: Rhetoric
    • Chapter 4: Politics, Persuasion, and Propaganda in Videogames
    • Chapter 5: The Ethics of Videogames
    • Chapter 6: Religion and Myth in Videogames
  • Part III: Pedagogy
    • Chapter 7: Videogames, History, and Education
    • Chapter 8: Identity and Community in Virtual Worlds
    • Chapter 9: Modding, Education, and Art

The third part strikes close to this presentation’s topic. Brown grounds his discussion historically, and also draws on the rich cybercultural topic of virtual communities.

Brown’s book is one example of liberal arts campuses producing book-length scholarly work on computer games. Articles are also appearing. We should expect more.

Faculty/Staff Game Creation

A different type of campus-gaming interaction involves staff creating computer games. “Staff” here refers to a mixture drawing on faculty, librarians, and various technologists. While the prospect of building an industrial-quality game daunts many academics, especially during a major recession, there are many ways to create games without breaking one’s bank.

One such way is to build on preexisting content. For example, Christian Spielvogel (Hope College) has been building a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) about the American Civil War. This social simulation is based on primary documents already available in a digital archive, the excellent Valley of the Shadow. Student-players create character avatars based on a combination of their classroom learning and the Valley’s extensive primary source materials, trying to recapture the lives of residents from two wartime communities. They then interact with each other in character, experiencing and debating the war’s epochal events.

Valley Sim, http://www.valleysim.com/

Valley Sim, http://www.valleysim.com/

Another example of liberal arts campus game creation comes from the Trinity University (Texas) library. Staff working on outreach and bibliographic instruction developed an alternate reality game (ARG) called Blood on the Stacks. An ARG consists of distributed pieces of content, often not labeled as being in a game, organized as a mystery, and both solved and narrated through collaborative play. The mystery plot of Blood on the Stacks revolved around a murder in the library, with clues scattered throughout its physical and information spaces. Students had to learn the library, information literacy, and some critical thinking in order to succeed.

Blood on the Tracks, Trinity University ARG

Blood on the Tracks, Trinity University ARG

Games as Learning Objects

Another typological layer considers game content to be learning content. This draws on the long history of learning objects, dating back to the 1990s. Here games are akin to CD-ROMs, textbooks, or presentations to the campus by visitors: intellectual content to be considered, and responded to.

Examples here are widespread, and we can start with several from Dickinson College. Shalom Staub, that campus’ Assistant Provost for Academic Affairs, teaches a course on Conflict Resolution, where the game Peacemaker is used and studied. Peacemaker simulates aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, already a subject present on the course syllabus. Playing Peacemaker gives students the opportunity to observe situational dynamics. Replaying it lets students return to earlier problems, trying out different responses, along the lines of counterfactual history. Writing in response to these gaming experiences allows students the chance to integrate their curricular work.

Screen shot from Peacemaker game

Screen shot from Peacemaker game

Across Dickinson’s campus Todd Bryant teaches German, sometimes using games in that language. Bryant has used World of Warcraft and Bioshock, letting students learn German vocabulary and syntax through experiencing the game interface and content. Non-textual content (music, images, video) reinforces the linguistic experience.

Learning German in games

Learning German in games

As Bryant wrote in his first published article on this pedagogy,

If the game provides authentic language content and requires communication in order to progress through the game—and our students are willing to spend hours of their time immersed in this environment— we can greatly increase not only their overall exposure to the language but their motivation to learn as well.

Back at Trinity University, Aaron Delwiche teaches an interactive multimedia course. Gaming plays an increasing role in it. For example, during the spring 2006 instance students conducted ethnographic analyses on groups within World of Warcraft.

Students Creating Game Content

A twist on game creation comes with using game platforms to produce small games. For example, Chris Fee (Gettysburg College) uses Interactive Fiction (IF) to teach medieval British literature. Students learn Inform 7, a free, open source authoring tool, then write short game-narratives about key archaeological locations or texts.

Student created game content using Inform 7

Student created game content using Inform 7

We can compare this with Second Life projects, wherein students build objects and locations in that environment. Second Life is beyond the scope of this discussion, but the comparison might prove fruitful for others.

Students Creating Games

Students are central to liberal education, and their role in gaming is often cited. Using games, for instance, is often seen as a way for older faculty and staff to connect with a younger, game-experienced generation.

A project example is Venatio Creo, built by computer science students from Ursinus College. Venatio Creo isn’t a game, but a game creation toolkit. Users can build relatively simple games with it, including platform jumpers. The intention was to lower bars to entry into game design, especially for an academic population. A 3D engine is currently being tested.

Venatio Creo -  a game creation environment

Venatio Creo - a game creation environment

The Role of NITLE

Having surveyed a typology of projects, we can now turn to the role played by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. NITLE is a nonprofit organization, working to advance technology in liberal education. We conduct research into emerging technologies, then offer professional development programs for liberal arts campuses in order to adopt those technologies most effectively and appropriately. In addition we help foster communities of interest and practice across more than one hundred such campuses, anchored on matters technological and curricular.

We have been following gaming’s use in technology for some years, researching its uses in the liberal arts world. NITLE has offered programs and presentations on gaming and learning, including cosponsoring a conference (Dickinson, 2007), workshops on campuses (Bryn Mawr, 2008), several videoconference sessions, queries and discussion on email lists, presentations to major NITLE events, presentations to other fora, publications, and blogging. We have participated in game co-creation, once through an ARG hosted by the Educause ELI conference (ELI 2009), and currently through a Web prediction markets game (NITLE prediction markets, http://markets.nitle.org/).

NITLE Prediction Markets

NITLE Prediction Markets

We have also helped facilitate a gaming and teaching network. This lives partly through peer-to-peer relationships and partly through Web 2.0 technologies (blogs, Twitter). Some post links and resources to a Diigo social bookmarking group. There are now faculty and staff involved from the following campuses:

  • Albion College
  • Austin College
  • Depauw University
  • Dickinson College
  • Gettysburg College
  • Hope College
  • Middlebury College
  • Swarthmore College
  • Trinity University (Texas)
  • Ursinus College
  • Vassar College

Overall, NITLE has helped connect experimenters across liberal arts campuses. We are seeing the emergence of a peer group of faculty and staff, sharing knowledge and projects.

What have we learned from this combination of research and networking? First, we have seen some factors supporting intercampus collaboration, starting with strength in diversity . Multiple disciplines offer a variety of ways to use games. Multiple regions of the United States showcase diverse approaches as well. Further, the network needs “supernodes” to function. These are activists and evangelists who share their passion and energize others. For example, Todd Bryant has done yeoman’s service on his campus, Dickinson College, but also gone beyond to work with others, via presentations, publications, a conference, and unflagging collaborative energies.

Low barriers to entry are crucial. This can mean accessible games requiring little support, such as the off-the-shelf Peacemaker. It can also mean selecting tools with low difficulties, like Inform. Drawing on preexisting content helps (like using Valley of the Shadow for ValleySim).

It is also essential to have educational examples to show what can be done in this field. The growing body of game studies literature helps, but learning about liberal arts campus projects is even more inspirational. Since there is no generally accepted single directory or registry for this need, NITLE plays an important role in connecting people with projects.

What Next?

Where is this movement going? What next for the network? One sign of the future comes from CNN, actually, who posed this question last year: “Computer games as liberal arts?” That article went on to state that “educators who teach kids to make their own video games are on education’s cutting edge.” (CNN, 2008). In other words, connecting liberal education with computer gaming is becoming less strange, and might even become expected.

It is possible that these campuses will experiment with other ways to combine gaming and education. We can see such possibilities for the liberal arts in current practice in other sectors. For example, machinima may be used for video production. Information fluency and/or media fluency curricula might incorporate gaming. And modding, or modifying a game to suit another purpose, could well prove attractive during this recession.

The recession might drive liberal arts campuses to further exploring no- and low-cost games. We’ve seen this approach from other educational institutions, such as “Nanw’s Adventure,” from the National Library of Wales. Designed in Flash, a popularly available media production tool, this game teaches a combination of library skills with Welsh cultural history. It is free to access on the Web. Perhaps liberal arts libraries, or other campus units, will follow that road.

As for NITLE, we are continuing to help. We plan on continuing our current work, as the Diigo group launches, stories are being blogged, and our prediction market grows in exchanges and traders. We are reaching out to more schools and organizations to celebrate these projects and explorers, as with this very presentation.

As fall 2009 approaches, we’ve seen games play a role in summer preparation for fall classes. Interest in ARGs is growing. Mobile gaming pilots have been discussed at Vassar and elsewhere. Exchanges of ideas, inspiration, and experience are rippling across campuses and state lines. 2009-2010 looks like another promising year for the intersection of gaming and liberal education.


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