Adapting gaming technology for education

Adapting computer game technologies for educational purposes is a practice is from a novel concept. Some recent developments, like the mod for Minecraft, MinecraftEdu, appear to have the potential to win kids over (children are very good at knowing when they are being tricked into learning).

A conversation with fellow educators at THATCamp Melbourne yesterday highlighted a significant problem with current business models for funding these experiments in a university context. One colleague expressed a desire to find an existing program and tool that would allow her archaeology students to learn archaeology through a virtual experience, specifically a type of program modelled on RPGs. This colleague also indicated that she once worked with a Professor in the USA, who developed a prototype along these lines, and knew that the achievement of such a project was well beyond the type of budget that she could generate, as well as beyond her expertise.

The fact of the matter is, that this particular colleague, and many others besides, should not need to raise the funds to embark on a brand new project because these types have been, and are being developed by digital humanities departments in universities the world over. A quick google search of digital humanities institutions will link you to hundreds of multi-million dollar projects, many of which speak to this particular archaeological need. The problem is that all of them, even the ones that have been completed long ago, were created in a university setting. Researchers involved in these projects do so to address specific research questions and problems that they have identified. When the research project is wrapped up and the grants dry up, and the researchers move on to the next big problem, the actual tool becomes a part of the discarded detritus that populates our virtual spaces.
Researchers as a general rule are not interested in profit or business and because of this, have no cause to ensure that their investment can and will be used to resolve continuing problems.

So this leads me to a potential solution. Researchers need to seek out collaborations with existing companies who produce popular games. The company needs to be carefully targeted on the basis that it:

  • produces a game that students a likely to be attached to or familiar with;
  • produces a game with an existing world that can be adapted to their educational needs.

Like MInecraftEdu, the purpose of the collaboration is to create a mod for an existing game that can cater to your education needs. The advantages of this approach is:
  • gaming companies have the capital to bankroll this project, so billions of taxpayer dollars don’t need to be sunk into projects that produce zero results. If scholars needed to contribute any money, the grants they seek could be significantly smaller and more achievable;
  • they are already experts at creating these worlds, a key problem with university generated programs is the interface and graphics are so primitive and clunky, they are very unlikely to engage students at all, defeating the purpose of the project;
  • and it dovetails with the pseudo-capitalist management style of universities which insist that academics develop public-private partnerships. It also helps to build some value into a university brand.

Clearly, for a proposal like this to gain any traction, said researcher would need to demonstrate to the company whom they are approaching, that this idea is a profitable one. There are many ways to do this, but one important strategy is to network with colleagues and to get them on board to demonstrate interest in a product ahead of time.

Many of you more familiar with the revenue model and labour processes within the games industry may take issue with this proposal, it may even already be a prevalent approach. In any case, your feedback is more than welcome. This is an important conversation to have, not least because of the fantastic waste of money within the university system on substandard technologies that never get off the ground; money that taxpayers have worked hard to earn, and money that is ostensibly earmarked for the education of future generations. It also has repercussions beyond a university context, providing new tools for primary and secondary school educators to better engage their students.


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