Students help design video games to teach classic literature

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – As students across the country prepare for final exams, making time for that “Halo 2” break is becoming more difficult.

But students may soon be picking up keyboards and game controllers for their finals in place of No. 2 pencils, according to recent research conducted at Abilene Christian University.

“I think we’re on the front end of gaming technology being incorporated into the mainstream learning environment,” said Doug Darby, creative director of the university’s education research center. In a project dubbed the “Immersive Literature Initiative,” honors students at the university worked in teams with faculty to design video games based on works of classic literature of their choosing. Meanwhile, researchers watched to see if the process improved their understanding of the texts.

The best adaptation, they said, was of Samuel Coleridge’s unfinished epic poem “Christabel.”

“The game picks up where the story leaves off,” Darby said. “You don’t really know what the resolution is, which was exactly what [researchers] were hoping for.”

The game’s student design team, made up of women representing various majors and backgrounds, devised three endings to the story based on how players act.

“In order to really understand how to play the game, [players] have to have read the poem, they have to go back and look for clues,” Darby said.

And to create convincing endings, the students researched Coleridge and his home, 19th century Britain. Coleridge and several of his contemporaries appear in the game as characters.

Darby said the students stunned researchers with the critical, “non-linear” thinking skills they developed in the process.

“They personalized the information, they actually became involved in the story,” he said. “Instead of just sitting back and reading the work and sort of regurgitating something out or just giving a reflection, they became participants. They actually shaped the literature and they were able to shape something that was still in the style and the mindset of the original piece.”

“Some teams got so involved that the depth of learning went far beyond anything that we originally conceived,” faculty development director Gary Tucker said in a statement. “However, instructors do need to be careful and provide the necessary structure and guidance for some students to be successful.”

The study suggested that more diverse groups of students were more successful with the project.

“We had a balance between people who were ‘somewhat gamers’ and those who were not gamers at all,” Darby said of the Coleridge group. The team’s relative lack of gaming experience, he said, encouraged them to take a nontraditional approach to designing.

“While the results of this research at this point are speculative, there is a strong indication that using the creative process, such as designing video games, can help create exceptional learning environments,” Tucker said.

Darby is optimistic about game development’s future as a learning tool, and not only in English classes.

“There’s a very limited amount of technology standing in the way of [student] development,” he said. “You have a wide range of new technology on the horizon so in the next 5 to 10 years, I’d say probably five years, you’re going to see gaming becoming a mainstream tool for learning across the board. We’re at the beginning point of that.” Darby and Tucker’s group are pursuing funding for a follow-up study, and similar undertakings are being explored by members of the New Media Group, a consortium of universities, museums and technology companies.

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