Saving the world one game at a time
A relatively new interest of social-science researchers is the educational potential of the ubiquitous video game. A player since childhood, York professor Jennifer Jenson comes by her research interest honestly
Jennifer Jenson's research studio at York University is unnaturally quiet on the day of her interview with University Affairs. Normally, the studio - a bright room right next to her office - is filled with kids playing video games on eight computers. And they're not a quiet bunch. "It can get pretty loud," she says with a smile.
It's easy to picture Dr. Jenson surrounded by noisy kids playing video games. Much of her life revolves around these games. As a professor of pedagogy and technology in the faculty of education, she plays them in her spare time, she researches how they're used and who plays them, and she has even built a game of her own. The frosted glass walls in her office are covered in red marker drawings mapping out the fictional city in Contagion, the educational game she designed.
Contagion is aimed at nine- to 13-year-olds and it's all about contagious diseases like West Nile, HIV/AIDS and the Avian flu. Dr. Jenson and her collaborator, Suzanne de Castell of Simon Fraser University's faculty of education, want pre-teens to learn how to take precautionary measures to stay healthy. "The Big Bad in this game is ignorance," says Dr. Jenson, who's working with programmers from Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology in Toronto to develop the software. While the end result is knowledge, the emphasis is on fun. "We want people to come to our game," says Dr. Jenson, "and spend as much time as they do with video games."
Besides being fun to play, these video simulations deserve to be used more as a classroom tool, says Dr. Jenson. Her work is part of a much broader project, called Simulation and Gaming Environments (SAGE) for Learning, led by David Kaufman of Simon Fraser and Louise Sauvé of Université du Québec's Télé-université (see "Learning through gaming").
"Even though a game may not have the content of the subject that you're studying," says Dr. Kaufman, "it could be useful for [helping] students to learn some of the core skills that we say we want our graduates to have - for example problem-solving, decision-making, teamwork, communication."
For her part, Dr. Jenson didn't begin her career in health or medicine but she does have a background in gaming. Growing up in Tacoma, Washington, her love affair with video games started when her dad brought home an Atari 2600, the first video game console to use plug-in cartridges. While many girls start playing because their brothers or male friends play, Dr. Jenson was the first in her family to try video games.
She continued to play recreationally through school and university, right up to her studies for a master's degree in English literature. When it came time to consider doctoral work, she realized, "I wanted to have more direct impact and influence on policy, so I did my PhD in education at Simon Fraser University."
During the first year of her PhD, Dr. Jenson interned at Sun Microsystems, a computer software company in California. It was there she discovered something she found disturbing: most of the men were programmers, and most of the women worked in human resources. She wanted to know why. Her timing was perfect - her then PhD supervisor, Dr. de Castell, was already researching gender issues and technology.
Now colleagues, they believe that one of the key reasons men dominate the technological world is their strong relationships with video games. "Video games are an easy route into technology and it's one of the ways boys got into programming," says Dr. Jenson. "What we know is that boys are already playing these games. It's speculative," she concedes, "but one of the ways we could not be doing our best to engage boys in the classroom is by dismissing video games."
While boys spend more time than girls playing video games, girls spend more time reading. The gender preferences seem to be reflected in school performance. In recent studies by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, girls significantly outperformed boys in reading scores in all Canadian provinces - 40 percent better on average. (Similar results were recorded in all but one of the 40 other countries taking part in the study.) In mathematics, boys did significantly better than girls in most countries, including Canada, although the gap was much narrower.
The OECD results coincide with findings from the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, which has tested 13- and 16-year-olds in reading and writing, and mathematics and science since 1994. Girls consistently outperform boys in reading and writing, and boys do minimally better in math and science.
Why does this happen? "There have been as many theories put forward as people you ask about it," says Trevor Gambell, professor of curriculum studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Some theories involve the feminization of the teaching workforce, the development of more female-friendly curricula, the fact that girls mature earlier and are more eager to please teachers, says Dr. Gambell. But there's no single answer.
"Boys . . . have a lesser attention span than girls do," he adds. So if boys are already playing video games, could they benefit from using educational games in the classroom? "I think that probably would appeal to boys," he says, "but the content of them would obviously have to meet curriculum needs as well."
This is a familiar concern. One of the hurdles Dr. Jenson and her team will face in getting Contagion into classrooms will be school administrators themselves. Many schools have banned video-game use because the games are too hard to monitor, or the principals don't think games are useful, or the games are just not good enough, says Dr. Jenson.
"It's an open question about whether the school system will adapt enough to recognize how important this is to kids' learning and their learning styles," says Dr. Kaufman of SFU. But he's optimistic the system will adjust eventually, likening the challenge to the one faced by early leaders who tried to introduce computers into schools.
For Dr. Jenson, an equally important goal is closing the gap between girls and boys when it comes to using and working with technology, starting with video games.
"Young women, by and large, say they don't play video games," she reports. "And we've noticed that girls, even if they have an Xbox or PS2 in their homes, don't usually have direct access to that. Access is usually through a male relative." With brothers or friends at the controls, "it means they rarely play by themselves or they don't even have their hands on the controls. They watch - that's playing to them," says Dr. Jenson, shaking her head.
To counter this, Dr. Jenson and a teacher at a nearby elementary school have organized weekly gatherings of a video game club after school. Girls and boys meet separately to play their favourite games. Recently, when Dr. Jenson asked a girl if she was having a good time, she replied: "Of course! This is the first time I'm able to play without my brother bugging me." Dr. Jenson says, "We really took that to heart. I like that we're giving them access to tools we only think they have access to."
One tool Dr. Jenson is eager to have students try out is her game Contagion. Prototype testing in the schools began last May. She'd like it to be offered online for free, so that anyone in Canada can use it. She and her team of programmers from Seneca College will soon be working on Contagion's final version for online distribution in 2006.
These days, Dr. Jenson's own video game playtime varies from zero to 10 hours a week, depending on her workload. Once Contagion is up and running, she may return to designing games dealing with issues beyond health. In fact, one of the first she worked on was "a save-the-world kind of game." It may be a tall order, but as Rosie the Riveter, a '50s-style action figurine hanging on Dr. Jenson's office wall, says: "We can do it."