Should libraries offer video games?

January 25, 2007

As a librarian for Electrical Engineering (EE) and four other disciplines in engineering/science, I have subscriptions to several “What’s New in…” monthly e-mail alerts from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). They focus on various areas of interest related to EE, including signal processing, wireless technologies, and so on. If you’re interested, you may subscribe to one or several of them.

Although I generally glance through those, I pay particular attention to the one for libraries. This month’s “What’s New in Libraries” links to a story about the advantages of using video games to prepare young people for future careers. This idea comes from University of Wisconsin – Madison education science professor David Williamson Shaffer, who has recently written a book called How Computer Games Help Children Learn. Shaffer is especially concerned about the overemphasis on standardized testing, as well as the continuing use of an educational model originally intended to prepare students for factory work over a century ago. Along with others, Shaffer believes that video games offer students opportunities to learn in a manner that they find “relevant to their lives,” and that matches their ability to multitask. The story also provides a link to a list of games developed by a team led by Shaffer.

Of course, anyone who remembers older videogames will know that this is not a new idea. I remember having some educational games myself, which I played on my Atari 2600. I especially remember Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space, which I always failed (even in the basic mode). Furthermore, the graphics hardly matched the excitement of a real flight into space or the inspiring image on the box. A quarter century later, technology for such games has improved substantially, making educational simulators more closely resemble real life.

I do like the idea of using videogames as educational tools, and I believe that libraries should make them available. It seems appropriate that academic, public, and K-12 libraries offer good quality simulators that match the needs of those trying to develop a variety of skills. Naturally, librarians would need to sort through a number of issues, including licensing for commercial games and determining how patrons could access the games. At a university, individual departments might have educational games on their own individual servers, and the library should consider how it wants to provide access to them.

Libraries should also consider the possibility of providing access to commercial games that do not have an explicit educational purpose. The various incarnations of SimCity come to mind immediately; not designed as an “educational game,” players subtly pick up on the implications of long-term thinking and planning. (You can also try to “play God,” but things might not work out so well… another educational tool in itself.) Such non-educational educational games allow players to learn from them, and not even think that they’re playing something with educational value. Furthermore, as I mention in my posting on Wii and Interactivity, educational videogames with haptic technology might be useful in such fields as medicine.

Just so librarians do not go barking mad, we should not feel compelled to consider providing access to every videogame available. We should develop some flexible standards to determine which ones might fulfill the needs of our respective communities. (Anyone who has suggestions for such standards, please feel free to comment.) Of course, this applies to videogames that one would have to buy, not to freely available games online.

All that said, I hope that we will avoid relying on videogames in education. They may be good tools for a number of disciplines, but interaction among teachers, professors, and students will aid in contextualizing what one learns from the games. Furthermore, everyone involved should remember that videogames do not replicate exactly what someone will experience in the “real world.” Developers of videogames may be able to create simulators with interactions based on past behaviors, but no training (online or in real life) can take into account what might actually happen in future workplace situations. When they enter the workforce, students will deal with real humans who have complex motivations. Skeptical as I am about Second Life, perhaps its principles could work to simulate real-life interactions in some of these games. Since humans control avatars in real-time, its denizens are not preprogrammed. The possibilities for scenarios are practically endless…

If the potential for videogames seems murky for more “scientific” disciplines that deal with human behavior, it seems even more difficult to figure out how a simulator might work in “softer” disciplines. They might work at a broad level in history, such as using graphics to represent movements of individuals or groups; a big plus for those into military history. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem quite as useful for those investigating the motives of historical figures. There might be potential for re-enactments, but those have been around since the beginning of historical documentaries. As for literature, I’m at a loss in figuring out how a simulator would work in those disciplines. They might somehow work for contextualizing a novel, but that’s pretty much it. Filmmakers have difficulty translating a novel for the movie theater, so how well could a videogame simulate the writing of Vladimir Nabokov or Salman Rushdie?

I have no problem with the use of videogames in various disciplines, and they have the potential to give students a flavor of what they will face in the “real world.” On the other hand, they should complement other forms of learning, and those who teach classes in various disciplines have an obligation to contextualize what students learn from those games.

I’m sure that many of us remember teachers who showed videos of something tangentially related to the topic, just so they could avoid teaching for a day or two. When I was a student teacher supervised by a history teacher, I remember another history teacher in a nearby classroom who always seemed to show moldy old movies in his class. (Not classics, mind you… just crummy war and Western yarns, from what I could tell.) I always wondered if he actually contextualized the movies, or if he just let the VCR run for 45 minutes while occasionally exclaiming, “Hey! Quit screwin’ around!”

Let’s just hope that teachers who use videogames do not follow the same patterns of behavior.

(Hmmm… let’s try a simulation of that…)


One Response to “Should libraries offer video games?”

  1. Jason Says:

    Here’s a Chronicle article that addresses some of the issues mentioned above, especially in relation to the humanities. Perhaps there is hope for games in those fields, after all, espeically in the hands of thoughtful developers.

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