How Video Games Play a Role in Higher Education

November 22, 2019

Video games have been a part of the mainstream culture for some time, with even sports network ESPN broadcasting competitive gaming competitions. But gaming is increasingly finding a home within the higher education, used as a teaching tool within the classroom.

Greg Sirokman, associate professor of chemistry in the Department of Sciences, has long looked at ways to make education more engaging. Gamification is one area he has explored at Wentworth. With experience in game design for education at the college level, and a lifetime of gaming experience, Sirokman recently spoke on the subject as part of the Faculty Speaker Series sponsored by Academic Affairs. He speaks with us below.

Wentworth: Gaming seems like a logical next step in hands-on learning models like the one Wentworth employs. How prevalent is gaming in education right now, particularly in higher education?

Sirokman: Gaming is at least moderately prevalent. It’s not a broadly used technique, but often used as a reward. Even back in the 90s, we'd play games in high school classrooms, particularly my French class. I probably learned more French trying to win those games than during any other part of that class. 

To echo the (Faculty Speaker Series) talk, of course it depends on how you define "game." In the end, every class is, in a vague sense, a game. You do tasks to earn points, to gain achievements, and get “unlocks.” Your achievements are your grades and unlocks are upper division classes (or graduation).

The use of games is much rarer but it is gaining a lot in popularity, especially as the generation that grew up on Dungeons & Dragons and video games become professors.

Wentworth: Could you provide an example of how you’ve implemented games into your classroom? 

Sirokman: My colleagues James O'Brien, Franz Rueckert (chair of the Department of Science) and Derek Cascio (assistant professor, Department of Industrial Design) have designed several physics games, one that teaches vectors, another that teaches circuit theory.

I myself have on occasion dragged more mass-market games into my classrooms. I assigned an analysis of the flash game SpaceChem for realism and applicability as a bonus project in several of my classes in the past. I am looking for ways to broaden these activities.

Wentworth: Is there an example of a mainstream game that you believe provides an especially good learning opportunity?

Sirokman: I would encourage anyone with even a hint of interest to get engaged in role-playing games. A great deal of social interaction skills and team building skills can be learned from playing the likes of Dungeons & Dragons or Burning Wheel or any of a myriad other tabletop RPGs.

Similarly, Pandemic, a pure board game, is a good builder of cooperative skills and is a reasonable model of the way epidemics tend to spread. As far “science outreach” type games, Genius Games makes a lot of very accessible games that are fun and have a lot of science themes, though they are not generally rigorous learning tools.

Wentworth: Outside of teaching, what is a game that you’re currently spending a lot of time with?

Sirokman: My current new favorite is Blades in the Dark, a narrative focused role-playing game about scoundrels in the postapocalyptic steampunk city of Duskvol. That or my attempt to get back in to Star Wars: The Old Republic.

--Greg Abazorius

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