A Classroom in Sheep’s Clothing

A Classroom in Sheep’s Clothing

Ever heard of the game Cross Country Canada (the Canadian equivalent of Oregon Trail)? Released in 1991, it was a computer game geared at Canadian elementary school kids that put you in the role of a cargo truck driver tasked to deliver commodities all across the country. By today’s standards it was a pretty rudimentary game, but back then the graphics and logic were mind-blowing. Through active participation in a first-person role, the game taught us about Canadian geography, the potential risks of picking up hitchhikers, and the amount of soul-crushing patience required to drive across this great land of ours.

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Images: Robert Catherwood

Educational games have evolved since then, and educators are embracing this form of learning now more than ever. In the Games for Learning chapter of John Ferrera’s book, Playful Design: Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interfaces, Ferrera notes that:

In recent years, researchers, educators, and game designers have explored new ways to use games for education and training, for both children and adults, and have even transformed traditional models of learning through gameplay. In the modern view, games have unique attributes that can enable means of learning that aren’t otherwise easily available. These attributes create opportunities for UX designers to create compelling learning systems.

As educators, museums are becoming more aware of this changing landscape and are keen to jump on board. And considering how tech-savvy kids are these days, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing the marriage of digital interactive technology and learning games. Here at NGX, we’ve been involved in a few museum projects that embrace this idea of learning through gameplay.

We recently installed an interactive game at the BC Sports Hall of Fame and Museum that puts kids in the shoes (or snowboard, or swimcap) of a high performance athlete as they make their way from the playground to the podium. Disguised as a vibrant “choose your own adventure” style game, the software actually teaches kids about the critical choices that athletes make along the Performance Pathway and how those directly influence their progression to the big leagues. Do you rest up after a soccer injury or do you go against your coach’s advice and play anyway? Do you pack up and move to a city with better training facilities or do you stay put where you’re comfortable?  In this case, “wrong” answers are just as educational as “right” answers.  In fact, it’s usually the losses that motivate you to try again, and again, and again to reach the podium – and absorb more educational content in the process.

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In 2014, NGX also completed an interactive Watershed of the Future game at the Manitoba Museum aimed at grade 6 to 8 students. As Stewards of the Watershed, kids are given the task of making choices that shrink the algal bloom in Lake Winnipeg while also considering the economic and social well-being of everybody in the region.  Through gameplay, kids soon realize that the algal bloom problem is not a black-and-white issue; it’s a complex, long-term challenge that doesn’t have a quick and dirty solution. Multi-player mode drills this message home even further by illustrating that working together is far more productive than executing a solo agenda. And if one strategy doesn’t work, kids can always touch the “Play Again” button (a button we’ve all wished we had in real life).

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As John Ferrera noted, gameplay allows visitors to grasp, first-hand, the complicated nature of a situation or a problem from a perspective that traditional learning tools wouldn’t allow. The clunky graphics and computer logic of Cross Country Canada may be long gone, but it looks like educational gameplay is here to stay. Digital interactives, in particular, offer a unique opportunity to explore the world of educational games in new and interesting ways, from classrooms to museums to who knows where. Hitchhiking Across Canada 2014, anyone?

– Jason Clarke, Interpretive Writer & Content Researcher

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