Remember how much fun Donkey Kong Jr. Math was? Of course you don’t. It was the worst selling of the 15 games originally released with the Nintendo Entertainment System.
According to experts from the education and video game industries at the Summit on Educational Games in Washington Tuesday, “edutainment” games haven’t made much progress in the 20 years since.
Video games have made some inroads where they can be used as simulations for training, such as in the military, but the lack of games that are both interesting and educational, as well as a cash shortage for research and development have kept games largely as an extracurricular.
Still, recent research  has demonstrated that young video-gamers have better visual perception than non-gamers, and can better keep track of quickly changing visual information that might be used for fast problem solving. Whether higher skills can be developed through gaming was a subject of debate at the conference. Still, with the ubiquitous nature of video games in mind, experts at the conference discussed ways to bring the game console to the classroom. Talks centered almost exclusively on potential for K-12 classrooms, but a few voices of higher education innovation chimed in, and much of the work being done on games for pre-college students and for the military is being done at universities.
Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness, noticed that her son had learned quite a bit of history and how “to ensure an intact supply chain” by playing Cossacks.  “Gee,” Wince-Smith said, “we should have had that game when we were planning the invasion of Iraq. Why don’t we build in math and science skills?”
Or how about biology? Elizabeth Sweedyk, an associate computer science professor at Harvey Mudd College, is developing an adventure game called “Elixir Vitae” that she hopes to test in introductory biology classes at Harvey Mudd next fall. In the game, players control a character, 16-year-old Rosalyn, in a fantasy world where various elixirs are the answers to all sorts of problems, from pollution, to disease, including Rosalyn’s own illness. Rosalyn has to run around searching for the right ingredients for elixirs before bad things happen, and she dies. All the while, the government is trying to maintain a stranglehold on the resources Rosalyn needs. Sweedyk hopes the game can be a metaphor that leads to learning.
“There’s no biology,” she said. “The game never mentions proteins, but it’s meant to be deconstructed with respect to protein synthesis.” Sweedyk said the game could be a good departure point for teachers to “say, this is similar to protein synthesis in these ways.”
Sweedyk said the game would probably be best used as a homework assignment, and might help get intro students interested enough to remain in the discipline. She said she considered loading the game with actual, hard biology content, but decided, with the help of student input, to avoid the Donkey Kong Jr. Math trap of focusing on test-like assessment. “You can’t do it realistically” and still make the game fun, she said.
Jan Cannon-Bowers, an associate professor of digital media at the University of Central Florida, helped bring training software to the Navy. She agreed that, while it’s extremely difficult to pull off the ideal of an educational blockbuster, games can help “change attitudes” toward certain subjects. “I never thought physics was cool,” she said. But, contingent on budget approval, she will soon start working on a National Science Foundation funded project to develop a multiplayer video game that can be used to augment intro physics lessons.
She said a preliminary idea is to have an adventure game where characters might “engage with Newton, and he sets you off on tasks,” she said. “If the example can force the learner to engage in content, you can get multiple student talking. ‘I want to solve this problem because Newton will die if I don’t.’” Cannon-Bowers doesn’t expect saving Sir Isaac to trump a good Halo session, but the idea of incorporating history into games is not so far-fetched, as the Civilization  game series can attest.
The Civilization games -- the fourth installment hit stores Tuesday -- are among the most popular computer games ever made. In the games, players guide their own civilization through history. The pinnacle of the original Civilization was landing a man on the moon. All of the sequels are packed with historical information, including the “Civilopedia,” where players can look up Alexander the Great’s battle résumé before deciding whether to take him on, or find out that the Persians are industrious and scientific. Some professors are already using Civilization. According to Deborah Briggs, the director of marketing and business development for Firaxis Games, the company that makes the Civilization games, said that Patricia Seed, a history professor at the University of California at Irvine, is one of a bunch of professors who often require students to play Civilization. Firaxis has a teacher’s section  on its Web site.
Michael Zyda, director of the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering’s GamePipe Laboratory,  helped develop the simulation “America’s Army,” which came out in 2002 and now has six million registered players, 3 million of whom have completed the lectures and tests required to pass a digital equivalent of the real Combat Medic Course. Zyda said the game was a valuable recruiting tool for the Army. Now he plans to soon be working with low-cost brain sensors developed by a company he was not at liberty to name, to see what parts of the brain are active during different video games and simulations.
USC researchers are also nearly ready to distribute to the military a first-person game where the player is a soldier helping rebuild in Iraqi city. The player has to speak basic Arabic, such as greeting phrases, into a microphone. The digital soldier then speaks those words in the game to interact with other characters who speak back in Arabic, with English subtitles.
The National Science Foundation has also given researchers at Brown University, USC, and the Federation of American Scientists money to develop “Immune Attack,” in which students race through the human body figuring out how to manage various parts of the immune system, lest infection win the game. The game is slated for testing in high school and introductory college courses next March. But there are still a few bugs to work out. “If you were traveling through a real blood vessel, the view would be blocked by all the red blood cells,” said Loring Holden, one of the researchers working on the game at Brown. “We have to find a way to visualize it, but stay accurate.”
Immune Attack probably won’t supplant Grand Theft Auto, but Henry Kelly, president of the FAS, sees potential. “It’s a different experience when students can really see this,” he said.