All the Right Muves: The Use of Computer Simulations That Appeal to Students' Love of Video Games Has Shown Compelling Educational Benefits

Article excerpt

IF YOU ONLY PUT A FRACTION OF THAT TIME AND ENERGY INTO YOUR STUDIES, YOU'D BE A STRAIGHT-A STUDENT!

It's the universal cry of parents the world over, driven mad by the persistent sight of their children investing hours and hours in mastering the many layers of a video game. To the parent, video games are the enemy, the nemesis of homework and learning. But the child sees something of value, something engaging enough to fill a weekend, to the exclusion of all other activities. What might happen if, instead of being fuel for a concerned-parent (and teacher) vs. recalcitrant-child conflict, the technology that so enthralls young people were used not for slash-and-burn computer games, but for educational purposes?

Some innovative educators think they know the answer: reduced absenteeism, increased concentration, enhanced learning, faster development of the skills that are needed in today's high-tech society--and students eager for more. On the internet and in school classrooms, students, teachers, and administrators are beginning to discover that what looks like a video game--a "MUVE"--can offer much more than just entertainment.

What's a MUVE?

Basically, a MUVE (multi-user virtual environment) is an interactive computer simulation of a geographical area. say a town, where features of the environment--buildings, rivers, stairways, people--are represented by computer graphics.

Virtual environments have been around a long time. "You're in a twisty maze of passageways, all alike" is a well-remembered line from the original interactive MUVE, Adventure. Responding to textual descriptions of locations in the Colossal Cave--the game had no graphics--players would type instructions such as "Go left." "Go right," or "Pick up lamp" to lead an imaginary adventurer through the chambers of the cave and its surroundings, collecting prizes and dealing with hazards along the way.

New technology has taken modern MUVEs a good deal further. A player now uses a mouse to lead an avatar into a building, up a flight of stairs, or across a bridge--passageways to even more options. Other characters may materialize.

If you enter a store, for example, a salesclerk might appear and ask you what you would like to buy. In a typical video game, the supporting characters are enemies that attack your avatar. In an educational MUVE, these characters are used to answer questions or give you information about your location. Therein is the critical difference between video games and MUVEs: Both take their avatars on explorations, but they have different notions of success. With MUVEs, instead of warding off opponents, searching for gold, or racking up points, players have only, one goal: learning.

River City

One of the leading educational MUVEs is the River City Project (muve.gse.harvard.edu/rivercityproject/index.html), a program created by a group of professors from several universities and implemented by about 60 teachers for 4,000 students in the US and Australia.

To use River City, students in a classroom collaborate in teams of three, with every student using a PC linked to a LAN where River City has been installed. Each student controls an avatar placed in a simulated American river town in the late 1800s. The town is facing a health crisis, and the students' goal is to find out why the residents of River City are getting sick and what can be done to help them. To that end, students can interact with residents, view archival photos from the Smithson-Jan Institute, and gather data with virtual tools such as microscopes and bug catchers, then they can share their findings with their teammates. If the teacher activates the chat feature, the student teams can interact with each other electronically. Students can also see the avatars of users from other schools, but for safety's sake, the program allows them to communicate only with their classmates.

The story line grew out of work the program's Harvard University (MA)-based development team did with teachers from Bostonarea schools. …