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Guest lecturer says video games belong in classroom

March 11, 2007

KALAMAZOO--Should controversial video games like "Grand Theft Auto" be used in class to get students thinking about values and ideology? Could fantasy games like "Morrowind" and strategy games like "Rise of Nations" hold the key to transforming America's educational system? The argument will be made when guest lecturer Dr. James Paul Gee speaks to students, educators and others at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 15, at Western Michigan University.

Gee, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin and a highly visible scholar in discourse and language studies, will speak about "Video Games and the Art of Learning" on the 10th floor of Sprau Tower. Gee also will host an informal discussion from 10 a.m. to noon Friday, March 16, in Room1215 of Wood Hall. Both events are free and open to the public.

Gee has sparked interesting dialogue among educators with his stance that some video games produce better learning conditions than many of today's schools. He says that because they unite pleasure with learning, they have the capacity to empower people. He also argues that video games can help teachers to better understand deep human learning and lead administrators in thinking about school reform.

Dr. Allen Webb, professor of English at WMU, agrees that moving video games, virtual environments and other immersive learning tools into the classroom is a thought well worth entertaining.

"We are pioneering this right now in our literature courses at Western," Webb says. "We want to understand how these tools can improve teaching, increase learning and retention, build a better learning environment and create a more positive learning experience."

Gee takes the stance that commercial video games, those like "Grand Theft Auto" and "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic," encourage students to think and act reflectively in respect to both the design of the game itself and the complex system that the games' worlds constitute. Webb takes a somewhat more moderate stand on the issue. While he agrees that the interactivity promotes deeper, more reflective thinking, he and other professors in the Department of English at WMU are integrating virtual reality into their courses in a different way. By creating their own interactive museum spaces, role playing activities and gaming environments that are closely tied to specific literary works, they are able to complement and enhance classroom activities while still meeting the more traditional goals of their curricula.

Projects being implemented at WMU are meant to extend the works of such foremost literary figures as Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens. Students will read the literature and discuss it in class. They will continue to write their own analyses. But, virtual worlds built by instructors and doctoral students will enhance their studies, reinforcing the cultural elements of each literary piece by allowing students to experience the places mentioned in their readings.

"Students get a feel for what it was like to be there in London or Athens," Webb says. "They can experience for themselves what the writers are trying to express through their words."

One thing's for sure--the games add interest. Educators like Gee and Webb believe the new technologies can be used to create immersive, interactive and engaging virtual environments that support reading and writing in a variety of disciplines. They hope that this will get students more deeply involved with the language, characters, settings, and cultural and historical contexts of their traditional studies. Concerned critics are voicing their opposition, though, maintaining that games do not have a place in the classroom.

"People are concerned--and rightfully so," Webb says. "Different educators integrate the technology in different ways. We want to make sure that these virtual environments and games are complementing other teaching methods. They need to be used as learning tools."

Gee's lecture will explore the use of virtual environments, commercial video games and other immersive learning tools as they relate to learning and cultural literacy.

Gee is a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He received a doctoral degree in linguistics from Stanford University and has published widely in linguistics and education. He has written several books, the three most recent of which focus on video games within the framework of learning and literacy.

Gee's visit is sponsored by WMU's Department of English and College of Education, and by the Literary Worlds Virtual Reality Innovation Grant. For more information on the lecture or the informal discussion, contact Allen Webb at allen.webb@wmich.edu or (269) 387-2605.

Media contact: Tonya Hernandez, (269) 387-8400, tonya.hernandez@wmich.edu

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