By Nathan Maton
Remember Math Blaster? Careening through space, shooting apple cores to learn about multiplication? That’s the most common correlation to the idea of “educational games.” But there’s a completely different way of using games for learning.
Roger Travis, a professor at University of Connecticut who teaches classics and researches gaming describes it this way: “When the learning objectives are the same as the play objectives of the game, that’s game-based learning.”
Travis has created a game to teach Homer texts he calls “Operation ΚΛΕΟΣ.” The objective of the game is for students to develop an analytic sense of both ancient and modern epic narratives and to perform as modern bards with a sense of ancient tradition.
There are no video game controllers in this class. Playing the game requires students to become bards and discuss epic narratives. Students perform bardic rituals on online games like Lord of The Rings Online. They form teams at the beginning of the course, and each team represents a separate character who they learn about and attempt to role-play in their game performances.
Travis uses game play to structure rules that require deeper interrogation of the subject, and he believes any subject below graduate-level studies can be taught this way. But creating a game-based learning experience is not easy. Travis has been teaching this course for six years, but it’s only his second year trying to make it a game. Last year he created a narrative that spoke to students as college students instead of as bards in an epic story, requiring his students to learn more about the fictional narrative he created, which separated the play objectives from his learning objectives.
“The course last year had its value but it ended up detracting from the learning objectives,” Travis said. He admits some students were confused about the narrative by the end of it even though they were learning about epic narratives.
For their part in the class, though some students admit parts of the course seem silly, they say it enhances their learning.
“The game based-format forces me to look at the text in a way that I wouldn’t have seen it before,” one student said. “Instead of just looking at the events of the Iliad, I now think about why the bard would sing it that way and what the purpose was for the events that take place in the grand scheme of the epic.”
Other students like how the game changes the course structure. “I like the self-paced nature of the course,” another student said. “Everyone is paired off into groups at the beginning of the semesters. Every Tuesday and Thursday they have deadlines for missions where they respond to a pre-ordained project. We learn from annotations in Google docs and share the discussions and team work better than any other course I’ve been in.”
But students mention one downside of the course with near unanimity – heavy coursework.
“The worst part about the class is that the student has to be committed to the classwork because it is a demanding class if you start to fall behind,” another student said. “Since students annotate texts and work in teams they can’t check out for half the semester and just tune in to write their papers at the end. Even this negative seems like a benefit. If the class time isn’t valuable and students can get A’s only by coming at the end, why have the course in the first place as opposed to just creating a study group for the test?”