I've been playing video games for almost as long as I can remember. We had a Magnavox Odessey 4000, then an Atari 2600, then a Nintendo Entertainment System. For as many fond memories I have of playing football outside with the kids in my neighborhood, I have even fonder ones of my brother and I sitting in our basement trying to beat Contra. My roommates sophomore and junior years in college had a Sega Genesis, which they used to play an NHL game incessantly. I've never liked playing sports games, so I sat out those sessions. A college professor introduced me to the Sony PlayStation and the revolutionary games that were being created for that system, like the Resident Evil and Final Fantasy series. I bought myself one when I was a senior and spent many Saturdays during my first year of teaching in front of the TV. I'm pretty sure that I should not try to accurately chronicle how much of my life I've poured into Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX. I used to visit friends and we would play Grand Theft Auto III or Final Fantasy X or Guitar Hero pretty much non-stop for an entire weekend. Even though a lot of the games we played were single-player, we used to watch and give suggestions to each other or cheer each other on. More eyes on the screen meant that few items went unnoticed. It also meant that we progressed through the games a little faster because if the person holding the controller couldn't figure out what do to, someone else in the room had an idea. After an extended break from gaming, and missing it quite a bit, my incredible partner bought me a PS3. I only play on weekend mornings now, because I know I could lose myself in the games.
There was a time when you almost had to read the instruction manual for a game because the controls for each game would be slightly different and often the designers would put tips and hints into the manual. Do games even have instruction manuals anymore? I haven't read one in years. Most of the games that I like to play build in a tutorial and then set you loose. You figure stuff out along the way by accomplishing the tasks that move the story forward. I guess I never really thought of it as learning, but I suppose that you do have to learn how to interact with the environment of the game world.
I can absolutely see the appeal of using video games and virtual environments in education. (I did love to play "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?") Games are designed to give you instant feedback on what you've done correctly or where you've made a mistake. You don't get a bad grade if you mess up. Even if you're playing a game where there is a score element, chances are you can replay that section of the game again to improve your score. (Some games are even designed in such a way that you can't maximize your score until you revisit early sections with the better abilities you acquire later in the game.) I wonder if a game that has an overt educational message or tone can be designed to do similar things. Maybe it can. I'm wary though. I wonder if what a player learns through a video game or through a virtual environment transfers to other domains. Perhaps it depends on what the player learns.
But, assessing what students know through a virtual environment seems really promising. The idea that a virtual world can give educators a better sense of what students know and can do in novel situations is very intriguing. I would use something like that in my classroom, if it were available. We have some computer based assessments, but they are basically just a paper-and-pencil test on the computer. Science assessments seems to be a near-perfect fit. Sometimes math and science get lumped together, but I think there is a bigger divide between them than people realize. Science is pretty much based on empirical experiments while math relies heavily on thought experiments. Im sure someone can come up with a good math assessment that isn't just algorithm recall and implementation - which is often what we end up assessing in math class anyway. It's really hard to figure out if your students have developed any mathematical habits of mind. Hard, but not impossible. Maybe I should try my hand at that for a while...