Abstract Computer video games are derived from a broad range of related fields, including virtual reality, simulations, and synchronous computerized communications. This paper will examine origins of each field and how they converged in the study of computer video games. The paper will then offer a brief review of the research illustrating the investigation of computer video game applications in the field of education, and conclude by finding areas of need for current and future research.
Computer Games in the Classroom: A History and Brief Review of the Research Computer video games as defined here are games played out graphically within a computing environment. They share characteristics with home console games. Consoles are technically also types of computers, but most people differentiate games designed for personal computers as computer video games. Consoles will be mentioned briefly in the history section as they are a related topic. Interest in applying computer video games to educational purposes has piqued in recent years as the abilities for games to simulate complex phenomena has increased along with personal computing power.
The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the developmental history of computer video games, briefly look at some of the current research efforts in the field, and to discern fundamental questions remaining to be explored. History Ideas about Information All computer concepts, including games, are based on earlier ones surrounding information retrieval and manipulation. Notions of information residing in an abstract space for the purpose of future retrieval derive from the ancient Greek poet Simonides, the first to develop “memory palaces,” or mental knowledge maps resembling physical structures (Johnson, 1997).
The idea that a physical machine could produce an infinite amount of information based upon finite input was theorized (with a failed attempt at implementation) by Charles Babbage in the 19th Century. His machines were conceived as advanced computational devices. Babbage stated he could tap the infinite measure of time within a finite mechanism in order to solve any number of problems (Gershenfeld, 1999). This idea is a key one, and proved fundamental in the development of digital computing, and later complex computer games.
The modern example of an information retrieval device most researchers point to as seminal is found in an essay published near the conclusion of World War II by Vannevar Bush (Shenk, 1997). Bush outlined a device he called the “Memex” which could sort through reams of electronic text (microfilm, as Bush envisioned it at the time). Foreshadowing hypertext, Bush stipulated his machine, built into a desk, could allow researchers unprecedented access to the world’s libraries and let them keep permanent records of their searches (Bush, 1945). Video Games The first documented mating of computers to electronic graphical output for the purpose of playing a game occurred in 1958 at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
A facility devoted to peaceful applications of nuclear energy, Brookhaven held open house events every year allowing public tours of the facilities. Using spare parts, a government physicist named Higinbotham hooked up an oscilloscope to one of the lab’s computers, and programmed a simple ballbouncing tennis simulation. Players watched the four-inch round screen while using two paddlewheels to control the ball, simulating a tennis match viewed from the side at mid-court. The simple diversion proved very popular at two Brookhaven open house events in 1958 and 1959.
Reasoning that his simple game was made with existing technology, Higinbotham never bothered to patent the idea (from a personal profit perspective, the U.S. government would have held the patent anyway, as Higinbotham was a government employee at the time). In Higinbotham’s mistaken opinion, the idea was too obvious to be profitable (Flatow, 1992). The Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-1 computer offered a cathode-ray screen. In 1961, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) received a model. A programming team led by Steve Russell at MIT then coded what many consider to be the first graphical computer game, Spacewar, in 1962. At least it was the first widely disseminated graphical computer game.
Soon spreading to other campuses and corporations with access to the DEC PDP-1, Spacewar became a worldwide phenomenon (Juul, 1999). Widespread commercial exploitation of video games waited until a few years after the first patent was filed in 1964 by Sanders Associates, a maker of television add-on products. The idea was to avoid expensive mainframe computers and provide home users a simple box that could display graphical gaming elements on a television set. Magnavox purchased the rights to the patent and released the Odyssey, the first home video gaming console, in 1972. Nolan Bushnell attended an early product demonstration in 1971.
While the Odyssey system offered several different games, Bushnell was most interested in the electronic Ping-Pong game. In 1972, Bushnell founded the Atari Corporation, and commissioned a coin arcade version of video PingPong called PONG (Winters, 2004). Later, PONG was sold to the home market. In defending its patent, Magnavox asserted it applied to all video games, and the legal wrangling with Atari and other companies persisted into the 1980s, often drawing Higinbotham into the fray (Flatow, 1992). Virtual Reality The nascent field of Virtual Reality (VR) saw pioneering efforts in Ivan Sutherland’s “Sword of Damocles” device.
Sutherland’s efforts in the mid- to late 1960s produced a device incorporating an early head-mounted display system that predated effective computer graphics technology. After abandoning the device due to technical limitations, Sutherland went on to develop many of the foundational algorithms for computer graphics (McLellan, 1996). The MIT Media Lab remains at the forefront of research in VR and educational gaming. The Media Lab holds a rare position in academia as a degree granting, research managing organization not housed within a specific department at MIT (Gershenfeld, 1999). A seminal
Effort researchers consider an early indication of visual representation of data and its pedagogical potential came out of the Media Lab in the 1970s. The Aspen Movie Map was a multi-angled, pictorial recording of the streets of Aspen, Colorado. Placed on video disc, it allowed users to virtually travel the photographed city, choosing divergent paths at will. Media Lab researchers used the project as a platform for investigating virtual education and spatial learning (Mohl, 1981). Simulations Computer simulation game technology rests on the convergence of mechanical simulations with graphical technologies first visualized in the 1940s and fully realized in the 1960s. Martin Heilig’s Sensorama machine, ca. 1961, is often considered the best early example of a mechanical simulator incorporating video VR (McLellan, 1996).
Much of the research and development money since then has been focused on military simulations. Modern computerbased warfare simulations derive from real world simulations that can be traced to ancient warfare training efforts. The ancient board game of chess may be considered an extremely abstract simulation of warfare (Martinson, 2001). With the increased complexity of mechanical devices appearing in the 20th Century, combat simulations became increasingly mechanical as well. Airplanes were among the first devices to be mechanically simulated in the 1920s.
The idea of simulating flight for training purposes was adapted to considerably more advanced trainers in the 1960s, culminating in lunar landing simulators developed by General Electric for the Apollo missions (McLellan, 1996). Prensky (2001) states the Army asked Bushnell’s Atari Corporation to modify Tank Commander for military purposes as early as 1978. As computer power progressed in the 1990s, the U.S. military became increasingly interested in commercial versions of computerized war
Simulators which had become highly popular. The first person shooter (FPS), where players are involved in gun battle simulations, proved intriguing to the military due to reliance on teamwork and battle strategies. In 1995, due to budget considerations, the Marines began considering the adoption of modified versions of Doom II and other FPSs to supplement field training (Riddell, 1997). Eventually, the military began commissioning highly detailed simulations coded to military specifications. While commercial products may cost a few hundred thousand dollars and be developed successfully within 18 months, full blown military productions often require much more time and expense.
The Joint Warfare System (JWARS) is estimated to have cost the Defense Department up to $60 million (Peck, 2003), and is considerably more complicated than a typical commercial game. Presently, as in 1995, commercial simulators available to the public are occasionally used by the military for training exercises considered less crucial than exercises handled by in-house programs (Peck, 2003). Although commercial war simulators are less costly and time consuming to develop, they may not offer players access to combat variables considered classified. On the other hand, some military applications have been released to acclaim and success, although government funding prevents profit-taking.
America’s Army, an FPS released by the military to the gaming public for free, has proven to be a successful recruitment tool (Peck, 2003). The U.S. military continues to successfully use computer games and simulations in training across all the services (Prensky, 2001). MUDs and Cyber Interaction One of the more influential early computer games of the 1970s was Colossal Cave, designed by Willie Crowther. Modeled after the popular paper game of Dungeons & Dragons, players used text navigation and a healthy dose of imagination to explore a cave, conquering
Monsters and collecting treasure along the way. Shortly after the game’s release and dissemination in 1976, Stanford graduate student Don Woods modified the game extensively and re-released it as Adventure. Woods’ ideas were further improved by students at MIT, eventually resulting in a highly successful commercial game called Zork (King & Borland, 2003). Having established the fun element of interacting with text-based computer games, it was a simple step for programmers to extend the interaction to the online world. In Britain, Essex University students Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle created the concept of Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs.
These were early attempts to engage multiple players simultaneously in text-based adventures similar to Zork, and are the ancestral components of all massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) (King & Borland, 2003). MMORPG s today have outgrown their simple text-based beginnings. Graphically complex, and capable of supporting thousands of players simultaneously, their corporate owners often charge millions of users monthly fees to continue accessing online characters in persistent artificial worlds.
The large sums of monthly fees from MMORPGs contribute to the billions earned annually by the video gaming industry (NASA, 2004). Three Elements Converge Three main elements converged to create modern interactive computer gaming environments currently considered state-of-the-art: computing power sufficient to graphically represent increasingly realistic three-dimensional virtual environments; a desire to sufficiently simulate a variety of real-world scenarios, particularly military ones; and the burgeoning field of Internet-based communications.
Research Games have traditionally been dismissed by scholars, with an occasional exception from the likes of anthropologist Stewart Holmes, who released a seminal 800 page treatise on the games of North American Indians in 1903 (Juul, 2001). In the 1950s to 1970s, American teachers experimented with several educational paradigms and techniques, including the use of games within the classroom for pedagogical purposes. The basic skills movement resulted in the withering of these efforts, however, and effectively stymied widespread exploration of the use of games within classrooms (Gredler, 1996). Once personal computers became commonplace in the 1980s, and as computer power increased, so did the complexity of computer games. With this complexity and the widespread success of commercial titles, teachers have increasingly become interested in harnessing their power for teaching (Squire & Jenkins, 2003).
Likewise, social scientists have determined that complex computer games are a phenomenon worthy of research (Juul, 2001). Computer games have the capability to provide widespread enjoyment for users. Consequently, researchers feel learning opportunities may take place within the gaming environment somehow. Squire and Jenkins (2003) point to the educational cartoon films funded by Bell Laboratories in the late 1950s and early 1960s that were sparked in part by increased national science and math interest following the successful launch of Sputnik. Bell Lab’s efforts of fusing school knowledge with an entertaining (though passive) medium were highly successful. It is widely believed that much more learning can take place within active environments such as computer games (Squire & Jenkins, 2003). Researchers within the field of VR focus on the manifestation of artificial environments, in which it is hoped participants will suspend their disbelief. VR researchers suspect artificial
Environments will likely never completely displace reality for this purpose (McLellan, 1996). However, computer game developers realize far less than total immersion can provide a level of realism that allows participants to easily suspend their disbelief and become heavily engaged, just as plays and books using minimum technology have down through the millennia (Laurel, 1991). Many successful commercial games are deliberately designed with simple interfaces, which nonetheless allow complex interactions within the games. Players do not demand completely realistic simulations in order to engage in (and learn from) a game (Manninen, 2003).
Therefore, for instance, virtual tanks may be controlled with a keyboard and mouse rather than a realistic tank control panel, but players will not mind and will nonetheless remain engaged as they “drive” their tanks across virtual battlefields. The question of how computer gaming might affect students’ preparation for standardized testing has focused on the digitization of traditional worksheets and their inclusion within software products. Deubel (2002) offered one of the better treatises on assessment of software products purporting to assist students in pursuit of increased scores on standardized tests, including games as a subset. She addressed several questions teachers should ask when assessing software for test assistance purposes, and offered considerations for teachers to weigh such as potential for modifications, curriculum alignment, and electronic tracking of progress.
Empirically demonstrating benefits of placing worksheet problems in a game, Lee, Luchini, Michael, Norris, and Soloway (2004) designed a Game Boy application for math problems and presented it to second graders who proceeded to exhibit greater work-through than the control group using traditional paper worksheets. Although Game Boy applications are not traditional computer-based products, research such as Lee and colleagues’ indicates worksheet