The Civic Potential of Video Games

by Hap Aziz

This article recently published in the USA Today online discusses the Obama Administration’s initiative to craft “policies around games that improve health, education, civic engagement and the environment” among other benefits. The realization that video game play can modify the behavior of game players is neither new or unique to the efforts of the White House; considering the work of people such as Jane McGonigal (see my recent blog entry here) or of organizations such as Games for Change which has been developing and distributing “social impact games” for nearly a decade. In fact, McGonigal makes a very similar case in her book, Reality is Broken, published just over a year ago. In the book, she discusses how it is possible to utilize computer games to solve real-world problems, while fulfilling some very basic and important human needs, including the pursuit of deep happiness.

Interestingly, the article also points out the tremendous learning potential of games:

“At the same time, researchers are finding that, for all the bad press, video games make exceptional teaching machines. The past few years have seen a flurry of titles — many of them playable for free online — that teach a huge array of skills and content.”

To move gaming technology forward in service of a larger social agenda, the Obama Administration has brought on Constance Steinkuehler as a senior policy analyst charged with developing “big, save-the-world games” across a variety of subject areas and hardware platforms. Steinkuehler says that she wants these games to be, “top-notch, super-high-quality games,” and she wants to create “great educational content and beautiful design.” This goal of creating great educational content in the form of games, certainly, is the goal of more than a handful of researchers. A Google search on the phrase “games in education” returns 787 million hits. However, there are non-trivial hurdles to be overcome involving the resources required for a successful game development effort. If we look at the top tier of computer games requiring several million dollars in funding as well as large teams of artists, programmers, and producers in labor resources, it becomes evident that developing games for specific purposes (whether related to social impact or to the support of education) is challenging from the standpoint of practicality.

Still, the sentiment that computer games will prove to be an essential part of the teaching and learning enterprise is nearly universal, and tools to facilitate interactivity (a fundamental building block of game design) are fairly easily available–whether we consider systems such as Apple’s iBooks Author or something much more specific in output such as the Inform 7 Interactive Fiction development environment. Ultimately, the success of any initiative or software product will depend upon the level of acceptance by the instructors in the classroom, whether residential or virtual. Diffusion of Innovation is a theoretical framework that allows us to better understand the adoption of innovative technologies and technology-related practices among instructors, and in 1995 E. M. Rogers developed a distribution model that divides the population into five level-of-innovation categories:

 Innovators  2.5%
 Early Majority  34%
 Late Majority  34%
 Laggards  16%


As we can see from the model, Innovators and Early Adopters together add up to only 16% of the population… which means that all the rest total 84%. With a distribution such as this, the real challenge to integrating video game technology into the teaching and learning enterprise will be in bringing those instructors that are slow to adopt new technologies into the modern era of computer games.


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Filed under computer games, education, games, Hap Aziz, Interactive Fiction

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