What Universities Should Emphasize and How Video Games are Ahead of the Curve

I just read an interesting article in The Times, written by the President of Harvard, about University Education.


The Author hypothesizes how universities should change to reflect what are now the most important skills to have in the 21st century. Here is a summary (mostly verbatim from the article) of the changes he talks about:

  1.  Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it.
  2. An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration.
  3. New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed.
  4. We understand the processes of human thought much better than we once did. Not everyone learns most effectively in the same way. Classrooms need to be more about “Active Learning”.
  5.  The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before. This makes it essential that the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism — that students have international experiences, and classes in the social sciences draw on examples from around the world.
  6. Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data.

I believe that video games play an important role in bringing eduction into the 21st century, because they often seamlessly incorporate aspects of these issues, or by their very nature do what academia needs to do.

Video games by their very nature are “Active Learning” (point 4), because of reasons we’ve talked about like being able to react to the player instantly and scale to the appropriate level of challenge.

But games also teach us about information processing (point 1). Most video games now have elaborate worlds containing thousands of different buildings, people and objects. However, the player can usually only interact with a fraction of each of these things. In playing a game, it is not necessarily important (or even possible) to know specifically what you can and can’t interact with. The important thing is knowing how to recognize what is user accessible, whether you’ve seen the specific thing or not. In the simplest example, in the game Mirror’s Edge everything that can be used for certain parkour moves is the color red. A more complex example can be seen in Skyrim. The world is covered in grasses and mushrooms and plants, but only some can be picked to be used as ingredients. There are also booby-traps that can harm your player. Knowing that ingredients and traps have unique characteristics differentiating them from their surroundings let’s you focus on things other than testing out every floortile or plants accessibility.

Collaboration is evident in the boom of multiplayer opportunities available to gamers today (point 2). Most players nowadays play games solely for their multiplayer aspect, for which it is always better to cooperate than not. Everything from playing the Halo campaign cooperatively with three friends, to playing a 12 vs. 12 domination match in Call of Duty, to organizing guilds in WoW requires collaboration–and teaches it in fun way to boot. The aspects required by this collaboration, often including people from all over the world, can also increase knowledge among cultures (point 5) (but the potential is often squandered on name calling).

Wow, this is a long post. Ok, well, that was a few of the changes important for education and how they relate to gaming. If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. carlmich
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 14:15:19

    I agree completely about point #1, that education has to teach people how to learn themselves rather than just impart facts. As a Computer Science major we learn mostly C++ in school with some classes in java. But in the workplace there are web development shops that work in php and javascript or those that use python or ruby on rails and yet they recruit the same graduates who may not have knowledge of those languages yet. you have to learn new languages as the job requires and be able to pick them up relatively easily. So classes aren’t focused on the ins and outs of C++ but more on general algorithms that can be applied in different situations, trying to get us to think about which situations different ones can be applied. And when you are doing game development or some other project and are trying to figure out how to generate a characters movement grid from the tiles you think of different algorithms to use in that situation instead of thinking of language specific stuff. Understanding concepts behind programming are much more important then knowing exactly what a certain function does in a given language because you can always google the facts once you have an outline of what to do.


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