Games like Age of Empires III are being used to teach kids history in high school. How does that work? Next Generation spoke to Young Minds Inspired, the company that's taking your products into the classroom.
Joel Ehrlic, president and owner of Young Minds Inspired, was a high school teacher back in the 1970s. He won a bunch of awards because he'd make his lessons interactive, dressing up as Abe Lincoln, for example.
Now his company works with entertainment giants like HBO, Sony and Microsoft, bringing movies, TV shows and videogames into classrooms as teaching aids. Its most recent project is Age of Empires III. We wanted to know exactly how this works. Do the kids, basically, get plonked down in front of a PC, and told to go ahead, invade Brazil?
"Everything we do is based on looking for things that turn kids on and integrating that into a teaching plan," says Ehrlic. He worked with Microsoft to create a demo pack and set of activities that are sent out to teachers who have expressed an interest in using such tools. The kids watch the demo being played, and then talk about issues that arise.
Age of Empires III deals with the conquest and colonization of the Americas; fertile ground for imaginative students. Taking on the role of a European power -- desperate to grab land and resources -- helps students understand the motivation and planning behind invasion. It also paves the way for learning about its consequences. That, at least, is the theory.
Ehrlic explains, "The Age of Empires III pack is targeted at high school students and the social studies curriculum, tied into the national standards for world history and American history. We created activities based on the game that introduce students to the great civilizations of that time. The students are put in the position where they imagine they are a world leader making crucial decisions and they are challenged to rethink events and analyze how they might have changed history."
Microsoft pays YMI for the service, and gets its products in front of its target audience in a receptive environment. But Ehrlic is well rehearsed when it comes to talking about the 'advertising to our kids at school' debate.
"Sure, it's promoting a game but there is very little given out that is traditional advertising. There's no commercial or message. If I told a teacher 'we're sending you advertising' they would say 'woah, hang on'. But this is part of the curriculum and teachers know what works.
"We won't work with companies that have services or products that aren't appropriate for students or that might alienate teachers. It must tie into existing curriculum. If I was a milk container and I called you up for an ad, that would be advertising."
What about the cost? "I am very careful about numbers because I don't want to be yelled at but I will say that reaching every single High School in America costs a lot less than a 30 second TV spot. And you're reaching millions of young people."
Games as learning catalyst
He adds, "Games act as an impetus, a catalyst, to get the kids and the teachers excited. Kids don't care about The Mexican-American War until they get to play the part of Santa Ana. Then they get it.
"We do the same thing with The History Channel, A&E, all the major movie studios and the TV networks. Rather than learn from a textbook, people can learn from Spielberg or HBO. You have a much better chance with kids by involving them with TV, film or videogames."