All work and no play is said to make Johnny a dull boy. But the proliferation of educational video games—what professors and game industry professionals call 'serious' games—in college and graduate school classrooms and on campus suggests work and play can occur simultaneously.
Several hundred college students at Rochester Institute of Technology, for example, recently participated in a pilot program of the game Just Press Play, which encourages them to collect business cards from all of the professors in their departments and explore the campus.
"By creating a whimsical, playful, game-like experience ... that frames [acclimating to campus] in a much less threatening and much more inviting way for people that are going through some pretty massive transitions," says Andy Phelps, the director of RIT's School of Interactive Games and Media.
Identifying what exactly is a game isn't necessarily clear cut. Some experts draw distinctions between games—which must be entertaining and have winners and losers, among other factors—and simulations, which lack those elements. SimCity, the computer game in which players construct an imaginary city, is an example of a game, according to this definition, while virtual flight or surgery programs are simulations.
"An education simulation is how you'd want your doctor to learn, and a serious game is how you'd want to learn," says Clark Aldrich, founder of Clark Aldrich Designs, a company that builds simulations and games.
[Read about how high teachers make gaming academic.]
When Michelle Cardella's friends heard that one of her classes at Hope College in Holland, Mich., involves a simulation called Valley Sim—in which students impersonate and learn about Civil War-era characters—they were jealous, says the junior majoring in management.
The online simulation, which was part of a class on conflict and communication, allowed her and her peers to delve into the characters' letters and really get to know them, as they tried to prevent the war from starting. "It was a really cool program," she says. "I've never done that sort of thing for a class before. I really enjoyed it."
Although Aldrich, who owns the game company, says there tends to be more press coverage of educational gaming in high school than in colleges and graduate schools, that's "exactly the inversion of actual adoption."
"By far the best serious games and the biggest use of serious games is at the master's level," he says. "Master's programs have been the earliest adopters of educational simulations and serious games. It's trickling down from there to college level, where a lot of the distance learning programs have suffered from a lack of emotional engagement, and so serious games have been used there to increase the interest level in the programs."
By Aldrich's estimate, every medical student is likely to encounter a game or simulation in the classroom, compared to about 80 percent of M.B.A. students, 40 percent of undergraduates, and 20 percent of high school students.
"Since 2003, games have gained considerable traction—they've really matured since then—with the diversity of games themselves, with the emergence of serious games as a genre, the proliferation of gaming platforms, and especially the evolution of games on mobile devices," says Veronica Diaz, associate director of the nonprofit EDUCAUSE's Learning Initiative.
Students cite a range of benefits of using serious games in the classroom. As an undergraduate at Indiana University—Bloomington in 1999, Ben Clark remembers his professor using SimCity to teach urban politics. The game let him and his classmates interact with a real life environment "without screwing the real world up," he says.
As an assistant professor at Cleveland State University, Clark doesn't bring SimCity or any games like it into the classroom, but he does ask students to use business simulators. "These online tools, while less formally a game, still help them to see some of the levers of government and see the trade-offs that have to be made when it comes to getting a budget done," he says.