The Many Avatars of Gaming

Stepping back from the intersection of two vital worlds for a big-picture view.

GUEST COLUMN | by George Schalter

Gaming is so all pervasive in our society that we sometimes overlook that fact that the technology driving it is fairly new, and easily available to many — only in these last few years.

Early Games

Gaming has been an offshoot of the development in computer science and technology. In 1940, Edward Condon, the nuclear physicist, developed a computer to play the game of Nim. Displayed at the World’s Fair, thousands played it. Over the next two to three decades, came shooting games on a CRT hooked to an oscilloscope, programming to play Chess and Tic-Tac-Toe against a computer, war game practices by the U.S. military, primitive tennis games on an analog computer, space wars, etc.

CREDIT unit videogamehistory on wikia

CREDIT video game history on wikia< The unit and display of Tennis for Two.

Many of these games were developed as an offshoot of other areas of exploration, e.g., human machine interaction and Artificial Intelligence. In spite of all this development, there were practically no commercial spin offs.

Gaming for Entertainment

Gaming really took off when arcade games came on to the scene and these coin-operated games became the haunt of many young adults. As technology progressed, the element of interactivity increased in arcade games. Newer controls were introduced even as games became more sophisticated, with the introduction of the microprocessor. Pong, Space Invaders, and Crazy Taxi were just some of the games which caught the imagination of people.

Play had always been a great way to learn effortlessly. Now, the latest in play, computer gaming, was getting the educational makeover. 

Meanwhile, inside universities students were using the power of sophisticated mainframes and minis to play and program games. Though these games contributed to building sophistication into digital games, they never made it out into the commercial world. As Personal Computers (PCs) became popular and affordable, games were bundled with the software (remember Solitaire bundled with Microsoft’s OS?). Games were delivered via cartridges, floppy disks, and CDs. Fans built libraries of games which included adventures, shooting, stealth missions, space invasions, races, first-person narratives, racing, theft, dancing, and a host of other genres.

At this juncture, just as it has been throughout history, technology and education decided to hold hands again.

Gaming for Entertainment with an Educational Element

CREDIT Curiousity-Fa

Twentyfour Students by Curiosity-Fa

Although education and technology are very disparate, they have intersected through a long part of human history. Writing was a technology that evolved in different civilizations. Moving from oral traditions to written ones meant a development of writing media (clay and stone tablets, metal plates, skins, palm leaves, papyrus, manuscripts etc.) and the so-called hardware to write (instruments made of bone, wood, metal, ivory, stylus etc.)

Once the printing press became popular, it was only a matter of time before classrooms as we know it came into existence. Teachers could use inexpensive textbooks to impart education. This was followed by a steady march of other technologies which brought us the projectors, electronic screens, interactive boards, computers, the Internet, and finally devices like tablets into classrooms.

As observant and progressive minds noticed the fascination kids and teens had for gaming, an educational element was introduced.

Play had always been a great way to learn effortlessly. Now, the latest in play, computer gaming, was getting the educational makeover. The Minnesota Education Computing Consortium( MECC) was a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the state government. This partnership saw the release of the widely influential game The Oregon Trail. One of the biggest successful names in educational gaming from 1980, The Learning Company, is still going strong.

As the PC made itself comfortable in homes, educational entertainment, or ‘edutainment’ was coined and in its wake followed educational games like Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, Math Blaster, Number Muncher and a bunch of other games. As the prices dropped, and speed, graphics, sound, color and memory in the PC got better, gaming increased in popularity. Over the last couple of decades, the reach of Internet technology has widened, making possible Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMO Games), where players in various avatars collaborate to solve problems in the game world they inhabit. Radix Endeavor from MIT STEP and School of Dragons from Jumpstart are games designed around school curricula. MinecraftEdu is a remix of the hit game Minecraft, but ready for usage in schools to teach skills like reading and problem solving!

Using Gaming Judiciously in Education

As more and more research pointed to children enjoying gaming, teaching faculty explored the idea of gamifying educational concepts. A national survey on teaching with digital games opens our eyes to extensive usage of gaming in American schools. Some math teachers designed games whereby their students could play and learn their way through math concepts. If not learn new concepts, they helped kids practice their math while playing a game. Teachers like Eric Nelson used gamification techniques to get his class enthusiastic about social studies.

Though digital games are extensively used in classrooms, it must be remembered that they don’t always help a child with learning a concept. No game is better than a good teacher, but good teachers frequently use digital games to supplement their teaching. The teacher, as always, is key to a lively classroom.

Holding Hands and Heading Off into the Sunset

Gaming is now available on multiple platforms and distributed in many ways. The more interesting thing to note is the sheer variety and number of people who are gaming. With rapid advancement in technology, more people are using smart phones and tablets today, as they have become affordable and easy to use. Men women, children, teenagers, mothers, fathers and even grandparents are gaming. In fact many a time grandparents and grandkids bond over games!

As supporting technology becomes available and affordable, educational games based on augmented reality might become the norm — playing a digital game in a real-world environment. It is surprising how much people want real-world-like environments in virtual-world games. In spite of all the technology, faces, eyes and hair lack that something which makes them real. Backgrounds don’t react the way they do in reality. Things don’t collapse as they do in everyday life.

The Next Big Thing in gaming might be getting everything to look and feel real. Game developers are working on simulating multiple elements on a screen to produce a more natural effect. Everything in our real world is intertwined and is in a constant interaction — light, shadows, movement, textures, colors, and a host of other things. Perhaps the next big thing in gaming will be to wipe out the difference between the real and virtual worlds — photorealism?

Just like a good movie where the leading pair walk off into the sunset holding hands, technology and education seem to be doing the same. To know what happens next, we’ll have to wait for part deux of this technology in education revolution.

George Schalter loves being a dad. He and his wife share the joys and responsibilities of bringing up their two children. As believers of a good, well-rounded education, they spend a lot of time playing with their children and outdoors. George is the writer in the family, and he blogs at Educational Kids Games.

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