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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Games, boys, Gameboys

Martin Stone
Martin Stone is Senior Project Manager, Online and Multimedia Development at Curriculum Corporation.

The educational attainment of boys is currently a hot topic, not only in Australian education but in other comparable countries. Various measurable outcomes such as school retention rates, exam performance and identified literacy and behavioural problems all give rise to concerns about how boys are faring in the education system.

The increased use of technologies in classrooms is a fact of the educational environment in advanced countrie. Many teachers and researchers have suggested that technologies may have a part to play in addressing the issues of boys' education.

At the same time, literacy strategies and the English curriculum have increasingly emphasised the use of non-traditional texts. Film and television, song lyrics, advertising, visual and performing arts all take their place as texts for the classroom, as the scope of literacy is expanded beyond written and verbal language.

There is strong evidence to support the contention that many boys (and also many girls) are powerfully attracted to technology. There is increasing evidence to suggest that students, in general, are often well ahead in their understanding and utilisation of technology than their teachers or parents. Games platforms such as Nintendo GameCube, Xbox and PlayStation, and the plethora of computer games related to them, are obviously popular and engaging. Young people, many of whom might be regarded as 'reluctant readers' in terms of traditional understandings of literacy, become fearless explorers when confronted with the interest and challenge presented by these games.

In addition to computer games, model-based simulation games like Warhammer and card-based games such as Magic Cards have become very popular, although they are complex and demanding. In terms of the higher order cognitive skills required for success, these games are analogous to computer games, although they do not actually rest on a technology platform.

Such games promote and require a wide range of generic skills, including critical and strategic thinking, problem solving and sequencing, and mathematical skills. They also reward creativity and in some cases require very fine motor skills, as in the case of Warhammer which demands detailed and ornate design and painting.

All of these entertainment titles utilise manuals and guides, and becoming proficient exponents of the games demands substantial communication with others, whether face-to-face or by means of online user groups. The games provide a context and a stimulus for using written and verbal language - and while the games are simulations, the processes and activities surrounding them acquire a real-world meaning for the players.

From a conservative educational standpoint, there is a natural reluctance to validate such innovations as having real pedagogical value or offering intellectual rigour. To some minds, computer games are junk culture, perhaps even a barrier to learning, and out of place in an educational strategy. However, the same arguments could be, and have been, made against the breadth of text types now commonplace in English classrooms.

Perhaps the key difference is that teachers feel comfortable and familiar with text types that were quite recently thought of as 'alternative' ('create a travel brochure', 'write an advertisement'), but they are yet to make the leap necessary to understand and exploit the potential of games. To a great extent games are consigned to a mental territory called Information Technology (notoriously infested with dragons and the odd dungeon, and best avoided), when perhaps it is time to rethink their potential as an educational tool in the realm of literacies.

Nor should the potential of simulation games as a tool for broader cultural education be excluded. Games such as Sim City 3000, The Sims, Civilisation and Age of Empires are a few of the titles which have clear potential to stimulate students' interest in the evolution of human society and its environment.

Notwithstanding the educational possibilities of such games, there are some serious hurdles to be overcome if we are to maximise their potential.

First, we need to debate how valid it is to consider games as texts and to establish the parameters by which to judge them.

Second, we need to explore and document valid ways of interpreting a games experience within educational frameworks. The setting of formal education demands identifiable products, and often products capable of being measured. How can we meet these demands while not killing off the spark of joy and creativity which is at the heart of the games' attractiveness to young people?

Third, while these games have appeal and relevance to students, in the present context we need to consider the specific issue of how to apply these experiences to the challenge of improving boys' literacy. And again, how this can be measured and evaluated?

Next, we need to think about teachers and how they can be equipped and empowered to engage with the games experience. What experience of games in general, or of a particular game, do teachers need in order to use them as texts?

And finally we need to consider the leadership question. Who should be expected to initiate work in this area - and how quickly can we get started? Because while we play catch-up, the game is getting away from us.

Further Reading
British Educational Communications and Technology Agency,Curriculum Software Initiative: Computer Games in Education Project.

Squire, Kurt, Reframing the Cultural Space of Computer and Video Games, Games-to-teach Project, MIT, August 2002.

McFarlane, Angela, Sparrowhawk, Anne, Ysanne Heald, Report on the Educational Use of Games, Teachers Evaluating Educational Media (TEEM).

Beavis, Catherine, Computer games as class readers: developing literacy skills for the twenty-first century, English and Media Magazine, 2000, no. 41, pp 31-3.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Boys' education
Computer-based training