Video games used as educational tools

Skyrim is an action role-playing open world video game developed by Bethesda Game Studios. A professor from Rice University is using the game to teach a class. (Photo provided by thegeektrench.com)
Skyrim is an action role-playing open world video game developed by Bethesda Game Studios. A professor from Rice University is using the game to teach a class. (Photo provided by thegeektrench.com)

For years college students have been trying to find the right balance in their time spent on schoolwork, social lives and free time. It is unknown if any have found the perfect time-spending equation. For most students, relaxing and social lives are put first while schoolwork is pushed to the last minute, causing the student stress and loss of sleep.

Matt Applebee, a criminal justice major at Oswego State, believes that he would be more excited about his school workload if he were offered a more interesting way of learning.

“Reading from textbooks, and writing long essays start to wear you out by the end of the semester; it can get very repetitive and boring,” Applebee said. “I don’t think I’m alone wishing there was a more interesting way of learning material.”

Dr. Donna Beth Ellard, an English professor at Rice University, planned a new course for the spring semester that will captivate students. The new course, Scandinavian Fantasy Worlds: Old Norse Sagas and “Skyrim,” will use the extremely popular video game “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” to teach about ancient Nordic fantasies.

“Skyrim” is an action role-playing open world video game developed by Bethesda Game Studios. Released in November 2011 for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, “Skyrim,” made $450 million in sales during the first week of the game’s release.

Set in the fictional province of Skyrim, on the planet of Nirn, the landscape and scenery resemble that of 8th century Scandinavia. One of the things about “Skyrim” that is so appealing to video game players is the open-ended game play. Players can explore the world of Skyrim as they please, while completing many primary and secondary objects that could lead them to many different storylines. Most storylines feature ancient Nordic legends of dragon slaying, magic, kingdom power struggles and gods.

Dr. Ellard’s idea of using “Skyrim” as an educational tool came up somewhat accidently.

“It was a little bit serendipity,” Ellard, who specializes in medieval literature and Anglo-Saxon poetry, said. One day she was watching her 14-year-old nephew playing “Skyrim,” and after seeing the historical background that is a part of the game, an idea started to grow.

“The concept of using Nordic fantasies as the storyline to a video game really drew me in,” Ellard said. “Victorian Era England is when people started to translate these Nordic sagas of dragon slaying, war, and Viking exploration. The English people enjoyed these sagas because the popular culture of the time was romanticizing medieval Anglo-Saxon and Nordic cultures through architecture, and the arts… but what is making the Nordic sagas and Scandinavian fantasies popular today?”

After asking herself that question, Ellard knew she had an idea for a class.

Although Ellard is still finalizing her lesson plans for Scandinavian Fantasy Worlds, her plan for the class is to have students read the Victorian versions of the Nordic sagas, analyze them and then play out the related quest in “Skyrim.”

Students will also compare and contrast the politics of “Skyrim” to the politics in America today, as well as other Scandinavian influences on American Culture.

“I don’t want people to think this is a course that just plays a video game; playing the game is only one part of the course,” Ellard said. “‘Skyrim’ is just another way to understand the material. It should be viewed like a text book to the course.”

The concept of using video games in the classrooms is nothing new, but it is still something that is not widely used on most college campuses. Here at Oswego State, a concept similar to gaming, virtual simulation, is being used. Taught by Professors Gary Ritzenthaler and Ulises A. Mejias, Osw3go AlterReality puts a current social issue into a virtual world. Students must react to different scenarios.

“It is a fictional scenario, but something that could easily happen in the real world,” Mejias said.

Last semester’s topic was “Islamophobia” (prejudice against, or fear of Muslim culture.) The professor would create a scenario of something going on in the Islamic world. After learning about the scenario, students would answer online polls to display their feelings on the situation.

“The student’s reaction in the simulation could be viewed as a focus group of how the general public would react on a larger scale,” Mejias said.

The topic for this semester is Hydrofracking.

Mejias believes the concept of using gaming for education will only become more popular moving forward.

“It’s only going to keep growing. When you think about it, gaming is being used for many different purposes today,” Mejias said. “Companies use games like ‘World of Warcraft’ as team-building exercises. Even the military is using gaming.”

The U.S. military sees videogames as a cheap and effective way to recruit and train troops. The military has even developed its own recruitment game “America’s Army.” The free-to-play, online first-person shooter recreates real-life military missions. When the player registers for game play, they are automatically connected to local recruiters. A 2008 study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that 30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game “America’s Army.” The study also found the game had a bigger influence on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.

Online gaming is also something that goes on here at Oswego State, not for recruiting purposes, but as another way for students and faculty to connect with each other.

In 2008, Oswego State acquired an island in the online virtual world of “Second Life.” By using “Second Life,” students create their own virtual persona and explore the Oswego island. The island is a virtual campus of sorts, it features a tutoring center, art gallery, and many different places for students to hold virtual meetings.

“It’s a very effective way for students to have group discussions,” John Kane, a professor at Oswego State who helps run the “Second Life” Island, said. “I’ve noticed that when students hold a meeting or a group discussion in ‘Second Life,’ they type 20 to 40 more words then they would through email or an Angel group discussion. Using an online avatar seems to keep the users more engaged in the conversation.”

The island also makes it easier for different areas of study to work together. The art gallery will feature photos of actual artwork. Right now, there is an exhibit of Japanese style paintings. A Japanese Art History class at Oswego will be able to view the artwork virtually and discuss it as a group without having to leave campus.

“[‘Second Life’] also makes connecting with other campuses easier,” Kane said. “Professors from other campuses, or other guest speakers can come speak to a group of students virtually, without having to travel to Oswego, which I think can be a more appealing option.”

Gaming is utilized for many different purposes, however, Donna Beth Ellard thinks that academia hasn’t realized gaming’s full potential.

“Video games have a huge effect on pop culture, and they are extremely appealing to students. Games like ‘Skyrim’ that have a historical storyline could be put to great use in humanities, and English classes,” Ellard said. She’s right about them appealing to students.

When registration for Scandinavian Fantasy Worlds: Old Norse Sagas and Skyrim opened at Rice, it reached the cap of 19 students within the first day, and Ellard had 30 students on the class’s wait list.

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