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Immersive Gameplay: The Future of Education?

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New immersive learning environments--built on state-of-the-art data modeling and "intelligent" game systems--may be the future of education, according to researcher Jim Brazell. But are educators themselves ready to make the shift?

Brazell, who is also a consultant and president of VentureRAMP.com, opened his keynote session at FETC 2009 Friday with a confession: "When I was a child," he said, "my family couldn't afford a computer." So instead of typing away on a Commodore 64 or an Apple IIe, Brazell played video games.

According to Brazell, it was his early exposure to games like Tempest, Asteroids, Dragon's Lair, and others that provided his first glimpse into the power of gaming. After all, he said, a video game is a computer. And because of that, argued Brazell, immersive games and gaming systems have become powerful tools for today's education environment.

The application of video games to domains other than entertainment--referred to as "serious games"--carries significant implications for education. "You can get more data in a video game," he said, "than you can in just about any other learning environment." Which is why, in Brazell's opinion, today's gaming environments represent a shift in the way we interact with both technology and information.

These new interactions, he said, are based on the emergence of three very distinct forms of reality: physical, virtual, and imaginary. Physical reality, he explained, stands as the world we experience through the senses. Virtual reality is the computer-generated replication of things that exist in the real world, and imaginary reality is understood as those things that exist beyond both the physical and virtual realms. "The combination of these three realities," said Brazell, "is the future of education."

Brazell, whose research focuses on "21st century issues," talked at length about new and emerging technologies that meld these three realities to create what he called "blended learning environments." Technologies like powerful, "intelligent" game systems, state-of-the-art data modeling, and enhanced software applications, to name a few.

These new environments, Brazell said, provide students with learning opportunities that are integrated with actual gameplay, opportunities that provide a rich user experience and limitless curricular possibilities. And the real beauty of it, he continued, is that "kids don't know that the learning is embedded in play."

To make sense of their potential, Brazell insisted that it is critical to understand that the medium of the video game has the ability to "send and receive signals that allow individuals to interact with both the content and the technology itself." In this respect, he said, "video games are on par with telephones and televisions."

Referring to Nintendo's Wii platform, Brazell proposed that games have reached the point where the lines become blurred between the game system and the user. We have become an integrated, integral part of the operation of the system. And that, he argued, has taken the educational possibilities to an entirely new level. "This is not 'edutainment' or 'edugaming'," he said, "but play and learning at their best."

In support of his arguments, Brazell pointed to a significant number of educational games that are being used around the world to teach users everything from health management and personal heath care to military operations to emergency management procedures to the more traditional subjects like math, science, and social studies.

According to Brazell, the market is filled with a range of options. including learning games, game for social change, games for health, and games that replicate a variety of real occurrences--referred to as "docu-games." Some examples include OurCourts.org, developed by the Sandra Day O'Connor Center for Justice to teach civics in an online format; Mass Casualty Triage, developed to teach Iraqi medical professionals how to deal with mass injury situations; and Whyville.org, a virtual world (pictured below) designed to teach tweens a number skills, from commerce and economics, to law and social justice.

Addressing some of the challenges educators face when considering the ways to implement gaming in the classroom environment, Brazell stressed that the application is the key. "Never start with the idea that you're going to use a video game," he said. "Start with what you want to teach and then find the right application.... It just doesn't work the other way around."

Brazell closed with a quote from 20th century educator Marshall McLuhan, famous for insisting that "the medium is the message." "So what is the message?" Brazell asked. Turning toward the large screen positioned in the corner of the room, he pointed to an image of three-dimensional figures from the online world Second Life. "This," he said, motioning to the virtual world represented on the screen, "is a 21st century teacher. Can you make the shift?"

About the Author

Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Illinois. He can be reached here.

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