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Playing to Learn

Professor Kathleen Hansen and Institute for New Media Studies director Nora Paul are exploring the use of computer games as effective tools in the classroom.

video game"Educational computer games--they're not just for five-year-olds anymore," jokes SJMC professor Kathleen Hansen as she navigates around the fantasy world of a computer game called "Neverwinter Nights" in her Murphy Hall office. Hansen, who has taught the Jour 3004(Information for Mass Communication) course in the SJMC for 25 years, has taken the course in a new direction this semester with the help of "Neverwinter Nights" and a research partnership with Nora Paul, the director of the SJMC's Institute for New Media Studies (INMS).

Hansen and Paul are part of a growing community of scholars who are rethinking the role of educational games in the classroom and turning gaming environments into learning environments. The gaming-as-learning movement is motivated by a simple observation: College students today learn in different ways than preceding generations. Current research by cognitive learning theorists, psychologists, neurologists, and biologists is beginning to show the ability of today's students to naturally multitask while learning--absorbing information from multiple sources simultaneously.

But how does that ability to multitask impact a student's ability to learn? That question was the genesis of the "Neverwinter Nights" project. "We wanted to develop an educational game that would allow us to do some experimental work on the efficacy of computer simulations as education tools," Hansen says. "We had several questions: Do students learn more or less through this method of information delivery than through other, more traditional methods of information delivery? And we wanted to know how--or if--a computer simulation would enhance, detract from, or otherwise affect learning." In other words, how would students learn from playing a game?

"Early attempts at educational games were a pretty bland attempt to use the game environment for education," says Nora Paul. She notes that such simplistic games are no match for the sophisticated expectations of today's students, who have been playing complex, graphic-intensive games since early childhood. "Neverwinter Nights"--or NWN--is one of those graphically sophisticated games. Manufactured by Canadian gaming company BioWare, NWN is a "Dungeons and Dragons"- type game set in a medieval fantasy world called Forgotten Realms, which is populated with rogues, wizards, barbarians, paladins, clerics, and other characters in settings ranging from mysterious forests to kings' courts.

Kathy HansenNWN has another, very important feature: It is sold along with a gamebuilding toolset that allows users to modify the game, and BioWare encourages players to design their own versions of NWN using "tilesets"--groups of images--which are available legally and online in databases set up by NWN fans around the world. This element of the game is what allowed Hansen and Paul to modify the software for the pedagogical needs of the Jour 3004 course: They replaced the medieval world of Forgotten Realms with the modern world of a small American city called Harperville, and transformed the rogues, wizards, and barbarians into news editors, reporters, and other modern characters.

Nora PaulHansen and Paul modified the game--with the technical help of Matt Taylor, a colleague at Dunwoody College of Technology--to provide students with an interactive lesson in researching and writing a breaking news story. In the modified game, the student plays the role of a rookie reporter at the Harperville Gazette newspaper. A train has derailed in town and spilled its load of anhydrous ammonia, and the rookie reporter is assigned to write a context piece to help Gazette readers understand the implications of the accident. In the game, the reporter talks to the paper's editor about a good angle for the story, such as the health effects of anhydrous ammonia, the potential environmental effects, the public safety aspects of the wreck, or issues of railroad safety. Once players choose their story angle, they are free to go anywhere in the newsroom and anywhere in the city of Harperville to research the story.

Players have many options for researching their stories. Hansen and Paul stocked the game's "news library" with hundreds of pages of documents and sources from online sites, and populated Harperville with dozens of characters who can be interviewed by the rookie reporter, including hospital employees, railroad executives and workers, city hall and emergency management personnel, university experts, and businesspeople. As students move through the information- seeking process, they take notes in a reporter's notebook within the game. They then "file" their story, get a printout of their reporter's notebook, and write a 1,000-word news story with the information they've gathered. As the class instructor, Hansen has access to the log of each student's movements through the game; students must also turn in their reporter's notebook and their stories so she can see the type of notes students have taken, and how they used those notes in generating their stories.

Since the Jour 3004 course is required of all majors in the SJMC, Hansen is eager to learn if this kind of simulated environment will help her students master the art of gathering, processing, and reporting information. "We know that students today are used to interactivity and that they don't like to sit still in lecture classrooms being 'fed' information," says Hansen. "What we don't know is if educational gaming is going to be an effective method of enhancing conceptual mastery of subject matter or complex processes. Journalism education is a great place to test some of these ideas," she adds, "since journalism students are asked to master both practical and conceptual skills in their courses. Game simulations can offer a realistic world in which to 'practice' those practical and conceptual skills without risk."

For Paul, the NWN project is a natural outgrowth of her work in the INMS, particularly the Games Research and Virtual Environment Lab (GRAVEL). "The GRAVEL project was started to build a network of people at the University who are looking into the use of games and simulation environments as an area of research or application in learning," Paul says. "But I'm interested in not only talking about games, but in actually applying what we know to real projects. The NWN project was a real opportunity to put up or shut up."

Paul notes that the NWN project will help answer some larger questions about computer gaming's role in classrooms. She cites a Pew Internet and American Life study which found that more than two-thirds--fully seventy percent--of college students play video, computer or online games at least once in a while.

"There are some popular misconceptions out there about computer games-- that they are frivolous at best and dangerous at worst," Paul says. "But this project is showing us that games can be much more than a way for students to pass the time--that they can be an engaging and effective way to teach and learn."