Using Videogames as a Strategy for Teaching Complex Concepts

Robert Brown

It can be a challenge to teach complex concepts in a traditional classroom setting using standard lecture techniques. That’s certainly true of college-level economics, which is a theoretical subject many students just don’t “get.” Videogames offer a revolutionary way to enhance pedagogy, promote higher-order learning, and make economics and other complex topics much more understandable to today’s students. By using games, we can help students understand the interrelationship among disciplines, analyze complex information, and solve problems.

In the Fall of 2006, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) launched ECON201, a new online videogame for college credit. Our GLS presentation will include highlights from the game, an examination of the process used to develop it, the challenges faced to date, and the lessons learned.

The ECON201 game teaches students that economics is a way of thinking. They learn by doing as they play the role of an alien species that crash-lands in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic earth and must learn to survive. Through the challenges the game presents, students learn to understand tradeoffs and deal with issues such as scarcity, savings and investments, and sustainable growth.

Unlike traditional courses where students memorize principles but may not fully comprehend them, our game requires students to apply their knowledge, make decisions based on economic principles, experience the immediate consequences, and react accordingly.

We’ve integrated a variety of interdisciplinary subjects that go well beyond economics — such as biology, history, and anthropology. For example, students must make ethical decisions as they play the game. They face a disease outbreak. They are introduced to historical examples of how the Earth faced similar problems in the past.

ECON201 doesn’t use traditional tests or exams. There are eight levels, each focusing on a concept, with three main “quests” in each level. A student must prove they have a sound grasp of the information covered before they move to the next level — answering questions and making decisions that indicate they can apply what they’ve learned in a variety of situations. An online chat feature promotes collaboration and helps students become part of a virtual, online community of learners.

At its best, teaching is a kind of prompting that helps students learn how to learn. In our experience, well-designed videogames can elevate pedagogy — helping us address diverse learning styles and extend our reach into under-served populations and communities. We can keep students engaged and help them understand complex concepts. Through group work, role-playing, and problem-solving, they learn to structure information, evaluate evidence, generate solutions, weigh consequences, question assumptions, defend premises, make decisions, and discern meaning — in short, accomplish the goals of a liberal arts education.

Videogames are an important new technique that should be considered by any educational institution grappling with how to improve student learning.

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