Developing Scientific Thinking in the Context of Video Games: Where to Next?

CORINNE ZIMMERMAN

In October 2010, a group of experts gathered at Fordham University in New York City for two days to discuss the academic potential of video games. There were game designers, researchers, and educators. I was invited to participate in the conversations as someone with expertise on the development of scientific thinking skills (Zimmerman, 2000, 2007). Claims have been made that video games may facilitate scientific thinking (e.g., Barab & Dede, 2007; Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008). As someone with only cursory knowledge of current gaming (but an early adopter of the home version of Atari Pong and an avid player of the VIC-20 versions of Frogger and Asteroids), I was curious to explore this issue more. As a novice of the new gaming technologies, I conducted an informal analysis of the content and structure of a number of educationally relevant video games (e.g., River City, WolfQuest, Quest Atlantis, ThinkerTools, WhyVille), which led me to believe that this new generation of games does include elements that are relevant to scientific thinking—such as problem-solving, self-directed experimentation, hypothesis testing, and causal reasoning.

Much has been written on the rationale for including video games in educational contexts in general, and in science education in particular (e.g., Annetta, 2008; Barab et al., 2009; Mayo, 2009; NRC, 2011). Arguments for the educational use of games include their potential for “complex forms of learning and participation . . . discursive richness, depth of collaborative inquiry, opportunities for consequentiality, rich perception-action cycles, and exploration of situated identities” (Barab, Gresalfi, & Ingram-Goble, 2010, p. 525). A particularly compelling argument relates to issues of motivation: video games are known for (and designed for) keeping players engaged. The behavioral persistence, extended time-on-task, lack of fear of failure, leveling up, and mastery approaches are all characteristics of games that educators would love to exploit. Moreover, the engagement seen in game play is consistent with various theories of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000), the concept of psychological flow

(Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 1990), and with educational research and theory, such as the benefits of self-directed, collaborative, and participatory learning (e.g., Gauvain, 2001; O’Loughlin, 1992).

My intention, developed after the conversations at the Academic Lessons from Video Game Learning conference, was to write about the research that is relevant for those working at the intersection of game development and academic skill development, with a specific focus on scientific thinking skills. My goal was to create a document that would provide a common knowledge base for game designers working at this intersection: if game designers knew more about the development of scientific thinking skills, they could be more informed engineers of the potential learning environments within the video game context. Similarly, knowing how scientific thinking is assessed and measured is important if we are to examine claims about the effectiveness of particular video games with respect to the transfer of relevant skills and knowledge to academic settings.

I begin with a brief review of the research on video games and science, showing that there is still much work to be done. My main goal for this chapter is to provide a focused review of the research on scientific thinking that is relevant for game developers interested in creating or modifying video games to promote these thinking skills. This review is embedded within a set of suggestions for the next phase of the research agenda on the academic potential of video games. My second goal is to outline the next steps, in a somewhat sensible but arbitrary order, that could be considered by educators and researchers interested in using video games to scaffold and develop scientific thinking skills.

 
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