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Video games are being used as tools for education and social change

ASU professors are using video games to teach their students

video game skecth.jpg
"What can video games teach us?" Illustration published on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017.

Video games have evolved from moving a few pixels across a screen, to replicating a game of tennis, to a medium that has the potential for storytelling and social commentary. 

It also has the potential to educate, promote social change and train people to perform a variety of tasks.

For example, they have been used to make tutoring software for typing and reading more engaging. Video game technology in the form of flight simulators is also used to train both civilian and military pilots. 

This kind of application for the technology has years of data to prove its usefulness. Danielle McNamara, a professor at the ASU Institute for the Science of Teaching and Learning, uses narrative-driven video games as practice for students who are learning reading comprehension techniques.  

“It was about 10 years ago, after the implementation of one of our tutoring systems in classrooms, that it became clear that we needed to make it more appealing and motivating for the students," McNamara said. "The obvious direction to take was to add games."

McNamara is implementing an education program where students are being given the opportunity to choose between using standard tutoring systems or game-based systems to practice reading comprehension techniques. 

ASU’s Center for Games and Impact is also developing more immersive games. The center has created games that allow students to take on the role of a scientist using scientific inquiry to solve a variety of problems, as well as a game that puts the player in the role of a United Nations representative investigating a crisis.  

“One thing that we found is that some of the most interesting growth opportunities happen around the game, not within the game," Sasha Barab, executive director of the ASU Center for Games and Impact, said. "We spend a lot of time making it so that a teacher can take things (students) do in the game world to support a conversation in the classroom."

“When I can get people using the game world to get invested, I have good data for an argument and I can give them feedback – that face-to-face argument becomes really passionate in ways that we need,” Barab said.

Video games are not being used solely for education — they can be used to promote social change. One of the earliest video games to do this is a game called Peacemaker

In 2007 Impact Games released Peacemaker, a strategy game that revolves around the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. The player’s main objective in the game is to broker a peace between the two countries and win the Nobel Peace prize.

Peacemaker challenges players to consider solutions for one of the most politically charged conflicts in history, allowing players to play as the Palestinian leader or the Israeli leader. 

Players can only use the resources available to the in-game leaders' real world counterparts. 

Peacemaker is intended to inform the general public about a significant global conflict, but since its inception, it has been used heavily by the Israeli and Palestinian youth to discuss the issue in a safe environment. 

“(The Peres Center for Peace and Innovation) runs workshops to this day for Israeli and Palestinian students in high school," Asi Burak, chairman of Games for Change and one of the creators of Peacemaker, said during a presentation in ASU's Stauffer Hall on Oct. 5. "It’s very interesting to see those kids deal directly with the conflict. Otherwise it’s avoided by teachers, because it’s so sensitive and political."

Games for Change has grown into an international non-profit organization, and in January Burak published a book in collaboration with journalist Laura Parker called Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World. 

The book discusses games that address a variety of social issues. For example, one game aims to prevent mental decline and is seeking FDA approval to allow doctors to prescribe the game to patients suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). 

Burak also spoke on the future of gaming during his presentation at ASU. He talked about the potential applications of virtual reality and augmented reality. 

He said he is most excited about the growing popularity of esports and the potential they have to bring attention to video games that promote friendly competition among nations in the way sports like soccer do. 

The popularity of esports has grown significantly in the past few years. In 2016 tickets to watch the League of Legends World Championship Semifinals in Madison Square Garden sold out. However, like any other popular form of media, video games have come under scrutiny.

Many associate violent behavior in teens with the heavy use of video games and blame video games for making people lazy. 

The bottom line is that video games aren’t going away anytime soon. Like books and films, video games can be simple entertainment, but they can also have a profound impact on education and social change. 

Reach the reporter at or follow @sonic_429 on Twitter. 

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