I've edited the post to move the focus away from Obama, because really he was just a convenient device to use as a hook and a representation of those normally aligned against video games, albeit a bit unfairly. It backfired and distracted from what this post was really meant to be, a discussion of the role video games have to play in education.
I just watched President Obama's address to the students of our nation today, and he once again made mention of turning off the Xbox, his symbol of all things video games. One one level he is right to say so, one cannot finish their math homework and get their English paper in on time while playing video games. Indeed, the Xbox does need to be off and the books open. Nonetheless, as it is his job to encourage the youth of American to focus on their studies, I think it is our job as gamers, who care about our hobby, to show how video games can contribute positively to youth as well.
Video games can educate and challenge people in a variety of ways that enable them to sharpen skills and expand their minds. There have already been several studies that show that video games can help surgeons improve their eye-hand coordination, so more Halo and Tetris for dentists and doctors please. But the focus of Obama's speech, and mine entry here, isn't on our adult professionals, but rather, our youth, and I'm going to expand that to college aged students, because some of my examples are better suited for them.
First, video games can help inform you what you are passionate about:
I don't think it is a coincidence that I've been an avid player of Civilization since I was 13 and that I majored in History and Political Science and college. Now, I don't think I majored in those subjects because of Civilization, I think I've always had a base interest in human society. But Civilization allowed me to explore my interests and engage them on a regular basis. Civilization on it's own may not be much, but coupled with the actual study of history it allows a student to envision how those important moments in history might have played out. This perhaps drives their curiosity to learn more and sends them back to the books to study things more in depth. Which really brings me to my second point...
Video games allow you to experience ideas and lessons in ways that can reinforce learning:
Movies do this too, but I would argue video games do it better. One of the foremost philosophers of the 19th century was Friedrich Nietzche, and there's a good chance you are going to encounter him in college. He philosophized on morality, religion, society, science and more. He is famous for stating that “God is dead” which itself can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but seems to point most to how society relates to itself, and what it meant for a society that had spent over a thousand years defining itself by it's relation to God to become so secularized. What you may or may not realize is that Xenogears for the PSX, is an exploration of those very themes from Nietzche's philosophy (it is no coincidence that the subtitles to all the Xenosaga games are titles to Nietzche's works). In Xeongears it turns out that the being who everyone believed was god turned out to be a bio-engineered weapon created 10,000 years earlier by humanity that crashed into the planet in question. Furthermore, this weapon essentially created the people on this planet to fuel it's return to space, and so they have to rebel and essentially kill their god. Xenogears allows a student to play through a story in a world where many of Nietzche's themes are at play and allow them to interact with his philosophy in a different manner than just being lectured at. Thus it allows them to engage the material in a new and interactive way, enabling them to explore themes and reinforce the learning they do in the class room. So if you struggled to fully understand Neitzche's works after reading some excerpts, perhaps playing through Xenogears and applying his ideas to that world will help you better grasp what he is talking about.
Video games can straight up teach you stuff:
I'm not talking about Oregon Trail and Math Blaster here, though those type of games certainly have their place, but there are people out there working to use video games as a key part of the classroom, and in some cases, as the classroom itself. This week (September 5th-11th) the Economist ran a story about Katie Salen, a games designer at Parsons The New School for Design. She is hoping to create an education model that completely abandons the traditional “chalk and talk” for something more interactive. She is working to create a school day that involves four 90 minute blocks of different video games designed to teach two subjects at a time. She calls the examination periods “Boss levels”. While I don't necessarily support the full abandonment of chalk and talk, I think the interaction between teacher and student is a key tool for education, I fully support using video games as teaching tools, and they have a place in our schools. Video games allow us the chance to interact with our lessons and see results from applying concepts, which greatly changes the way we grapple with material in comparison to simply being lectured at. Ms. Salen will be testing our her methods in one school of 12 to 18 year olds so we'll see how her methods turn out when they graduate their first class in 2016. In the meantime, I hope other designers and education professionals continue to work together to explore how video games as a medium can be used as instructional tools in the class room. It is quite possible that video games could be the key to redefining the way we go about education altogether, much to the chagrin to traditionalist.
As with all things, a popper balance needs to be found. There are certainly priorities that come before video gaming. But perhaps a little more attention should be paid to the positive effects video gaming can have within our society. What needs to be done now, is the exploration of how this medium can allow us to get more out of education than we are right now.