Games and Virtual Environments

Games and virtual environments are emerging technologies that are becoming quite popular in schools and classrooms throughout the country. Games are very popular in arcades and on the Internet. These games are quite sophisticated and many have numerous players throughout the world. The term gaming is often associated with sophisticated, multiplayer games. Many of these games have a virtual environment setting, often referred to as a virtual reality. Virtual environments are computer-generated where users can interact. Virtual environment programs are slowly entering education. This chapter takes a look at games and gam- ing and virtual environments or reality and offers suggestions and resources to sup- port teachers’ integration of these technology-based activities into the classroom.


William Higinbotham is credited with developing the first actual game on a com- puter, in 1958. He never filed patent papers and not until March 13, 1981, did   theBrookhaven Bulletin publish a story crediting him with this honor. It was a tennis- theme video game designed for a hands-on public display at a nuclear research facility. It was the forerunner of one of the most popular games of all time, called PONG (see Ralph Baer is usually considered the inventor of the first video game, called Odyssey, which appeared in 1972. Then in the 1970s came the popular arcades, offering coin-operated games. The seventies are often called the “Golden Age of Arcade Games.” Many hand-held elec- tronic games were introduced in the late seventies. In 1985, the Nintendo Entertain- ment System introduced the Game Boy hand-held device. Advances in computer technology in the 1990s included graphical interaction with point-and-click gaming. Adventure games such as Myst were action-based, real-time games. The late 1990s brought sophisticated 3D graphics. The early 2000s brought games that took many hours to complete because of all the variables and skill and knowledge levels. In- ternet-based games that could involve thousands of people followed. These games were established on powerful computers with advanced graphic capabilities. Games that offer players physical exercise became commonplace (Fry, 2005). The military and commercial aviation emphasize gaming and simulations in their training activ- ities and education is beginning to apply some of their gaming designs.


What Is a Computer Game?

Alsip and Trollope (2001) define a game as an activity characterized by competition, rules, and winning and losing. Electronic games can involve one to many players. Often, players compete with the computer or electronic gaming device rather than with another human. In addition, many simulations (see Chapter 12) can also be con- sidered games. Foreman (2004) uses the phrase “credible interactive simulations” for games that are as close to the real-world model as possible. For example, Madden NFL 2006 ( credibly simulates football and is considered both a game and a simulation. Real-world problem solving can be the content of an interactive game. For example, many real-world games are utilized in professions such as the military and law. The user (player) is actively involved with the game, making decisions, solving problems, and coming up with viable solutions. Of course, some are basic games, such as military training for the use of weapons. Some of the games simulate real-world military scenarios. Common online computer gaming and virtual reality acronyms are multi-user-domain (MUD) (also multi-user dungeon, multi-user dimension, and multi-user dialogue) technology, multi-user di- mension object-oriented technology (MOO), cybernetic organism (CYBORG—a be- ing that is part human and machine), multi-user virtual environment (MUVE), and massively multi-player online games (MMOGs). The names imply the design usage and approach of the game. There are many hand-held games as well as gaming soft- ware. Many games are offered over the Internet where players compete with each other. The computer-driven instructional revolution includes gaming as its focal point (Foreman, 2004). Video games often are confiscated from students. However, if used correctly, they can become a key teaching tool (Shreve, 2005). Often the competitive nature of multiperson electronic games causes concerns among teachers and parents, worried about the emotional state of the losing player(s) because of the involvement that is typical. But a player competing against a computer or hand-held gaming device is of less concern, since the computer has no feelings and the results are usu- ally only known to the player.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 70 percent of college students have played computer, video, or online games at least once, while 65 per- cent reported being regular or occasional game players. This growing population ex- pects their teachers to offer learning opportunities in exciting and engaging formats, and to have some control and responsibility over their own learning (Jones, 2003; Bonk, 2005; Prensky, 2001). Teachers are beginning to understand that games not only bring fun to learning, but also provide excellent situations to interest students in learning.

Gee (2003) argued that good computer games are not just entertainment but in- corporate as many as thirty-six important learning principles. Taking as long as 100 hours to win, some games are very difficult. They encourage the player to try different ways of learning and thinking, which can be experienced as both frustrating and life enhancing. Prensky (2001) identified a combination of twelve elements that make computer games engaging. These elements are summarized in Table 10.1. Al- though most of the complex gaming environments are too expensive to build for the education classroom, more and more sophisticated games are being developed as teachers welcome electronic-based games in the classroom.


Educational Games

There are many types of educational games, including repetitive drill-and-practice, simulation, tutorials, and content instruction (see Chapter 7). Educational games involve solving equations, scoring points, solving mysteries, guessing words, enduring iterations, solving puzzles, and handling sophisticated problem-solving situations with rules, competitions, adventures, and fantasy situations.

Websites for Games and Gaming

(See also Chapter 12 for gaming simulations.) Algebra and math games

English-language arts game websites

English, science and math games

Educational games to teach time, math, language, reading:

Educational games:

Game-based learning for math, science, social studies, and language arts:

Game-based simulations to learn about weather, elections, and Shakespeare:

Game demos:

Game depot:

Game format to teach foreign languages:

Games and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture:

Get Your Game On:

History of Computer Game Design (Stanford):

Liberty Arcade—interactive social science games:

Multiplication video game:

NCTM electronic example of using data sets available on the Internet:

Phonics reading game:

Talien’s History:

Teach video game development: 

Using games in education:

Video-based games:


Future of Gaming in Education

The future of applying gaming in education will continue to grow and become an integral part of everyday classroom tools. The major obstacle that education has to overcome is the general view that computer-based games are only fun and not educational. Therefore, educators and game developers need to apply the content based on standards and the curriculum in a gaming format. As computers continue to increase in speed and memory size, educational gaming applications will become more apparent. As the games become more sophisticated and education oriented, with instructional and supplementary resources created around a game, the class- room application of games will become part of the curriculum. In addition, the potential of gaming approaches will solve some of the accessibility issues for disabled students. Finally, as the gaming industry realizes that there is a significant potential market for educational games, future gaming applications will become an everyday application for delivering educational content to students.

simSchool: A Classroom Flight Simulator for Training Teachers*

Just as a flight-simulator immerses a player in the complexities of flying a plane, sim- School ( immerses novice teachers in some of the complexities of teaching 7th–12th grade students who possess a variety of different learning char- acteristics and personalities. The simulation is designed to serve as a virtual practicum that augments teacher preparation programs by supporting the develop- ment of teaching skills prior to field experience in real classrooms.

simSchool is what Shaffer (2005) defines as an epistemic game. A player enters the simulated classroom perhaps with a limited understanding of teaching practice; through repeated cycles of decision-making, experimentation, and refinement, the player builds expertise by developing new strategies and thinking like a teacher. simSchool thus introduces future teachers to some of the teaching community’s “ways of doing, being, caring, and knowing” (Shaffer, 2005).

Immersed in a simulated classroom, simSchool players must analyze student needs, make instructional decisions, and evaluate the impact of their actions on stu- dent learning in order to succeed at the game.

With computer- and network-based expert feedback, the simSchool program can also be seen as providing a form of “simulated apprenticeship.” The tacit processes, mental models, and professional skills of an expert that are needed to succeed   in  *Originally published in Zibit, M., and D. Gibson. (2005). simSchool: The game of teaching. Innovate, 1(6). Retrieved January 29, 2007, from http://www.innovateonlineinfo/index.php?view- article&id=173. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Fischler School of Education and Hu- man Services at Nova Southeastern University.

teaching are embedded in the structure, rules, choices, and environment of the game; through such a design, the simulation Site-Wide Search coaches a player through feedback, hints, and scaffolding during gameplay—thus fostering what researchers have described as a cognitive apprenticeship approach to instruction (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Collins, Hawkins, & Carver, 1991). As players advance in their ability, the complexity increases, pushing them to new levels of challenge, just as in apprenticeship-based  learning.

Virtual Environments

Wikipedia defines virtual environments and virtual reality (VR) as a technology that allows a user to interact with a computer-simulated environment. Most VR envi- ronments are primarily visual experiences, displayed either on a computer screen or through special stereoscopic displays, but some simulations include additional sen- sory information, such as sound through speakers or headphones. Some advanced and experimental systems have included limited tactile information, known as force feedback. Users can interact with a virtual environment either through the use of standard input devices such as a keyboard and mouse, or through multimodal de- vices such as a wired glove, the Polhemus boom arm, and/or omnidirectional tread- mill. The simulated environment can be similar to the real world, for example, simulations for pilot or combat training, or it can differ significantly from reality, as in VR games. In practice, it is currently very difficult to create a high-fidelity virtual reality experience, due largely to technical limitations on processing power, image resolution, and communication bandwidth. However, those limitations will eventu- ally be overcome as processor, imaging, and data communication technologies become more powerful and cost effective over time ( Virtual_reality retrieved on 9/11/06).

Virtual reality often includes 3D imagery and some sort of tracking device such as data gloves, which enable the user to point to and manipulate computer- generated objects in a computer-produced world. VR places the user in a virtual world by fooling the senses and artificially creating sight, sound, and touch.

VR is playing an integral role in many professions, replacing many user acti- vates which were considered too dangerous for humans. Real-world applications of virtual reality are becoming very common in several professions, for example, VR is

  • Commonly used for sales, design, training, and some applications in education
  • Used in the military for training and design of equipment such as tanks and air- planes
  • Used by real estate agents to give customers a virtual tour of a home
  • The basic tool for architects to create and design a home or building
  • Applied by automobile manufacturers to create, design, and test their future automobiles
  • Utilized in the recreation industry for having virtual events
  • Applied to the commercial gaming activities where players compete in an inter- active environment with many players throughout the Many of the games use military themes.
  • Used in creating virtual museums
  • Used extensively in the medical Significant strides have been accomplished with simulated real-time operations. Doctors using 3D artificial space for surgery, colonoscopies, and heart checks are now becoming common VR applica- tions. Doctors can examine patients’ internal organs in 3D artificial space and watch how radiation passes through the patients’ organs.


Educational Applications of Virtual Reality

The cost for the development of VR programs for education limits their creation and application. We are beginning to see education-oriented virtual reality programs specifically geared toward content topics. Here are some common online virtual re- ality system terms:

  • Multi-User-Domain (MUD) technology
  • Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE)
  • Massively Multi-player Online Game (MMOG)
  • MultiUser Construction Kit or MultiUser Chat Kingdom (MUCK)
  • Avatar (an image you select to represent yourself, usually a )
  • Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML—a 3D graphics language used on the Web)

A popular virtual world that is an MMOG geared for teen and pre-teen girls and boys is Whyville ( Whyville’s 1.7 million registered citizens (players) come from all over to learn, create, and have fun together. Whyville is their world. Whyville has places to go, things to do, and, of course, people to see. Whyville has its own newspaper, its own senators, its own beach, museum, City Hall and town square, its own suburbia, and even its own economy—citizens earn clams by playing educational games. Whyville citizens can play a wide assortment of games, but also take jobs that teach them a variety of skills. The focus is education across all subject matter.

River City (see scenario below) is a MUVE where collaborative teams of students explore, analyze, and report on water-related health problems in a 19th-century town. It is an example of problem-based group learning in a simulated world.

The Future of Virtual Environments in Education

There have been increasing number of attempts to integrate virtual reality into class- room curriculums. In practice, it is currently very difficult to create a high-fidelity vir- tual reality experience, due largely to the unavailability of cost-effective computer processing power, higher image resolution, faster data communication, and vast mem- ory capabilities. As the technology overcomes these deficiencies, virtual environments will become commonplace in education, covering most any curriculum topic.

Virtual Environment: The River City Science Inquiry Project

River City is an educational multi-user virtual environment designed to teach sci- entific inquiry skills to middle school students. The River City curriculum is cen-

tered on skills of hypothesis formation and experimental design, as well as on content related to national standards and assessments in biology and ecology. The main learn- ing goal for students exploring River City is to discover why residents of the virtual town are getting ill (Nelson, Ketelhut, Clarke, Bowman, & Dede, 2005).

The River City virtual world is set in the late 1800s and named for the river that runs through most of the town. River City includes a main street with shops, a library, and an elementary school, along with institutions such as a hospital, university, and city hall (Figure 10.1).


FIGURE 10.1 | River City.

River City is an educational multi-user virtual environment designed to teach sci- entific inquiry skills to middle school students. The River City curriculum is centered on skills of hypothesis formation and experimental design, as well as on content related to national standards and assessments in biology and ecology. The main learn- ing goal for students exploring River City is to discover why residents of the virtual town are getting ill (Nelson, Ketelhut, Clarke, Bowman, & Dede, 2005).

The River City virtual world is set in the late 1800s and named for the river that runs through most of the town. River City includes a main street with shops, a library, and an elementary school, along with institutions such as a hospital, university, and city hall (Figure 10.1).


FIGURE 10.2 | River City interface.

On entering the city, the students’ avatars can interact with computer-based agents (residents of the city), digital objects (pictures and video clips), and the avatars of other students. In exploring, students also encounter visual stimuli such as muddy dirt streets, and auditory stimuli such as the sounds of coughing town residents that pro- vide tacit clues as to possible causes of illness. Content in the right-hand interface window shifts, based on what the student encounters or activates in the virtual envi- ronment, such as a dialogue with an agent or historic photos and accompanying text that provide additional information about the town and its residents (Figure 10.2).  

| Learn-U

Students work in teams of three or four to develop and test hypotheses about why residents are ill. Three different illnesses (water-borne, air-borne, and insect-borne) are integrated with historical, social, and geographical content, allowing students to develop and practice the inquiry skills involved in disentangling multi-causal problems embedded within a complex environment (Clarke, Dede, Ketelhut, & Nelson, 2006; Ketelhut, Clarke, Dede, Nelson, & Bowman, 2005). Over the course of a 3-week long curriculum, students experience a year of virtual time in River City. First visiting River City in October 1878, student teams return several times to find that 2 to 3 months have passed in River City on each subsequent visit. A final sharing day at the end of the project allows students to compare their research with other teams of students in their class and to piece together some of the many potential hypotheses and causal relationships embedded in the virtual   environment.

The River City curriculum is carefully crafted to provide a level of complexity that occupies a middle ground between the simplicity of many classroom-based “canned labs” and the complexity of real-world scientific inquiry. While exploring the River City world, students can also make use of several interactive tools designed to scaffold their inquiry, manage complexity, and mimic real-world scientific inquiry processes. These tools for inquiry include a water sampling tool, mosquito catcher, stool tester, lice test, an environmental health meter, and a unique tool for running experiments by chang- ing elements in a world to see the results (Nelson, Ketelhut, Clarke, & Dede, 2006). The River City Science Inquiry Project website is at http://muve.gse.harvard. edu/rivercityproject.


Virtual  Environments/Reality Websites