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Professional Opinion

Games promise active, enjoyable learning

Alternate reality and simulations put a new spin on learning for the gamer generation
University Business, June 2016
David Seelow is the founding director of the Center for Game and Simulation-based Learning at Excelsior College.
David Seelow is the founding director of the Center for Game and Simulation-based Learning at Excelsior College.

Watching preschoolers play on touchscreen devices makes it clear that the future college students of America are of the connected generation. Unfortunately, I fear today’s teaching methods are ill prepared to embrace this new type of learner.

Higher ed must embrace game-like learning just as progressive Silicon Valley companies have, or risk bored, disengaged, unprepared students both in the classroom and in the workplace.

Learning to manage a crisis

In spring 2013, Excelsior College launched the Center for Game and Simulation-Based Learning. As founding director, I hoped to develop a formal process for incorporating game-based learning into the college’s curriculum and promote its value in higher education.

We began a pilot program to design new courses or redesign existing courses with an emphasis on game-based learning. The courses touched on a variety of subject areas, including public administration, technology, history, nutrition and even World War I.

So far, we’ve learned it has several advantages over traditional instructional methods, including:

  • Students learn by doing while immersed in “real world” environments.
  • It fosters the skills needed in the 21st century to solve today’s global, multidimensional problems.
  • It demands teamwork, creativity, problem solving, strategic planning and systems thinking.

Excelsior’s public administration capstone, currently in design by Muzzy Lane Software, is an ideal example of game-based learning’s advantages.

The capstone will be a multiplayer game where students will work in teams to manage a city in crisis. Students will demonstrate the skills they master throughout the program and also apply those skills in the very context of their chosen career.

Down the rabbit hole

Also, last fall, the college launched what might be the first fully online credit-bearing alternate reality game course. “Secrets: A Cyberculture Mystery Game” is a humanities course focusing on the rise of cyber culture and its impact on changing ideas of personal identity.

The heart of the course is a science fiction mystery story about the internet that starts with Professor Grey being contacted from the future—the rabbit hole of an alternate reality game—by an organization called The Collective.

As the story unfolds, The Collective promotes a new belief in “primal empathy,” a utopian form of bioengineering. They are opposed by a freedom fighting resistance group called Fortress Nine. As the course progresses, a humanitarian group, The CareHart Foundation, comes into play and later a more nefarious corporate entity called Chromogen.

The course makes use of an alternate reality game’s key elements, beginning with the rabbit hole mentioned above. Each organization has a fictional website and email address so players can contact the organization directly. Tensions are raised when the course is “hacked” and classmates turn out to be impostors (these are college staff masquerading as students to illustrate the importance of vigilance in regards to online identities).

Student reactions have been uniformly positive. Online courses are suited for alternate reality game because of how much these games rely on the internet as the game platform—but they are also highly effective in a traditional classroom. That’s because game-based learning is low cost. What matters is not money, but a new way of thinking that puts the emphasis on problem solving, creativity and action.

Demanding action

Critics, historians and others have continually talked about the need to move beyond lectures or even discussion-based online environments. Games do that. They demand student action. They engage students in the learning process. And they offer enjoyment.

David Seelow is the founding director of the Center for Game and Simulation-based Learning at Excelsior College.

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