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Learning about video games? It's a call of duty

Here are three things I have discovered about technology in FE colleges. When a learner is asked to put their mobile phone away, they invariably claim to be "anticipating an emergency call"; they are categorically not texting their mate on the next table. Every computer must pass through Facebook as a stage of logging on. And the day after a midnight release of a much anticipated video game, most attendees will sit with heads lolling, as though they have spent the previous evening in the company of Charlie Sheen.

Statistics show that video game sales have surpassed those of any other form of media. It is safe to say that games aren't a passing whim. Though the industry recommends no more than 45 minutes of play without a break, I have a guilty admiration for any game that can hold the attention of a skittish teenager for five hours solid.

Seeking solutions and improving through iteration is the skeleton of every video game. Playing throughout extended timeframes demands substantial commitment. Nudge a fraction of that commitment into formal learning and all of our end-of-year stats would be through the roof.

It's tough to create engaging learning that responds to the cultural consumption of the student demographic, so when college throbbed with anticipation at the release of the next title in the Call of Duty game franchise a year and a half ago, I was ready. I watched the trailers, read the press material, became an expert on issues surrounding the game, and all without actually playing it.

There is little more astonishing to a room of 16 to 19-year-old builders than a not-very-cool teacher, older than their mum, who can hold her own in a discussion relating to the media criticism of the infamous Russian airport scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This scene was so provocative that questions were raised in Parliament. The player, cast as an undercover soldier, has infiltrated a group of terrorists. Should he fully engage in that role, perpetrating a massacre but remaining undetected to the group, or refuse to participate in the slaughter of civilians and risk being exposed as an infiltrator?

The narrative length of Modern Warfare 2 clocks in at around six hours, much shorter than the average narrative of a game, which is around 35 hours. Still, that's six hours of concentration. All I want is 90 minutes. But how to sneak in the work based on their play?

We compared written reporting of games. We discussed whether perpetrating violence in a virtual environment is more damaging than watching the actual human effects of it within the context of a boxing match. We explored the differences in game ethics - the "greater good" killing of civilians in Modern Warfare 2 compared to the "points for kills" in games such as Manhunt. After consolidating opinions and expressing ideas in initial notes, students presented them in a conventional written framework, over all levels.

These themed sessions aren't about being "down with the kids" or duping them into believing I'm a gamer. What they reinforce is that attention is being paid to what excites them culturally, and this offers respect and validation to those cultural preferences.

Embracing the digital consumption of students delivers opportunities to show that it's not "your way or my way" - it's both. A Jane Austen novel and Grand Theft Auto both deliver compelling narrative, but only one will have them lining up at Asda.

In legitimising video games as a teaching tool, we not only promote autonomous learning and improve morale, but also illuminate the possibility that there may be value in curiosity of worlds outside one's own sphere of reference. I'm not suggesting that we all join the midnight queue when Grand Theft Auto 5 hits the shelves, but given the chance, it may just prove worth a peep. Curious?

Sarah Simons teaches functional skills English in a large inner-city FE college.

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