Class, Take Out Your Games

How teachers are using computer games to pique the interest of tech-savvy kids

Joseph Durant, a 10th-grader in Washington, D.C., has new respect for what it takes to be the President. Schoolmate Ciara Belle calls herself Cleopatra and feels comfortable talking about ancient Egyptian civilization. Miles away, in Charleston, W. Va., Catherine Carte suddenly believes gym class may be the best period of her school day.

The one thing they have in common? Computer games are behind their new attitudes. They're all studying at schools that let students use games in the classroom to become virtual Cleopatras, Bushes, or Baryshnikovs. And for these students, learning has never been so engaging. Gym was "horrible, absolutely horrible," says Carte, who now supplements traditional physical exercise by working up a sweat moving to a game called Dance Dance Revolution. "I was like, 'O.K., I'll see what it's about before I start hating it.' But I really liked it."

These days, computer games are usually pilloried for excessive violence and sex. Yet teachers across the country are bringing certain games into their schools as a way to pique students' interest in everything from history and politics to physical fitness and music theory. Among the most popular are Firaxis Games Inc.'s Civilization games, Take2's Railroad Tycoon, and Carte's new favorite, Dance Dance Revolution from Konami Corp. (KNM ). "We have to embrace the technology, because that's the future," says Tim Meegan, a Chicago history teacher who uses Civilization. "You have to either get on board or get out of the way."

Game developers estimate that at least 10% of the classrooms in the nation's 2,500 major school districts use mainstream titles for learning, up from only a handful five years ago. The adoption rate appears to be accelerating. In February, West Virginia began rolling out Dance Dance Revolution as a fitness tool to all 163 middle schools, part of a $600,000 program to equip all state public schools by 2009. In Hawaii, teacher Leighton Nakamoto received scores of calls after he presented a paper at a state education conference on how the game can be used to teach music history. And in the nation's capital, several schools will incorporate Civilization games into their lesson plans for the spring semester.

Teachers abroad are grabbing the game controls, too. A January survey of British teachers found one-third use games in class to help develop motor-cognitive skills or teach topic-specific subjects, and 59% would consider doing so. Australian game developers held a workshop on the subject in November.

In part, the movement comes because many young teachers grew up playing games and recognize the value of incorporating interactive features into learning. Jeremiah McCall, a teacher at Cincinnati Country Day School who uses Civilization III to illustrate European imperialism, says mainstream games now entail more problem-solving and constructive thinking than ever before. "I want them to be able to evaluate evidence, put it together to form their own interpretations of the past, and critique other people's interpretation," he says.

Others argue that using games in physical education classes can make them more inclusive. In West Virginia, one study showed that nearly 43% of the 5,887 children screened from 1999 to 2002 were overweight. When the state launched a pilot project to determine whether Dance Dance Revolution had health benefits, Catherine Carte's mother enrolled her. The 13-year-old now dances to music on a three-foot-square metal mat in the direction of arrows on a TV screen. She says gym is a pleasure and has lost 20 pounds.

For game developers, the move into the classroom presents new opportunities to reel in more gamers. Since complex 3D games typically cost $20 million to develop, few companies will rely solely on the education market for profits, says Deborah Briggs, community relations manager at Firaxis. "Our plan is to keep doing what we do -- create games that are fun for everyone to play and maybe learn from," she says. Educators are looking for just such software to change the rules of the game in their classrooms.

By Cliff Edwards

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