Thursday, January 31, 2008

Venture Africa: Take 2

Video games--do they have a place in the classroom? This is the second year I have experimented with a game called Venture Africa in an effort to answer this question. And for the second year in a row, I would have to say that the answer is decidedly YES.

The life science standards for the state of Ohio consist almost entirely of ecology concepts--energy transfer in food webs, photosynthesis, how animals adapt to and change their environments, etc. Venture Africa, part of the Wildlife Tycoon series, acts as the perfect platform for teaching these concepts. The game requires players to create a balanced ecosystem on the African savanna. Depending on the level, they could be responsible for creating and sustaining up to 12 animals (that, by the way, multiply and consume all of the resources if players are not careful)!

Upon finishing play yesterday, I have tried two different approaches to teaching with the game:
  • Last year I used the game to actually teach some of the concepts; in other words, by trying to balance predator, prey, & producers, students learned about how organisms have certain needs that must be met if they are to survive. If they are not met, then the ecosystem falls out of balance.
  • This year I changed things a bit. Instead of using the game to teach the concepts, I simply let the kids play the game--I have to admit, mostly to engage them--and used the setting, the savanna, to teach the concepts. I related everything to the savanna: we made food webs with the organisms found there; we discussed how organisms have adapted to the climate; I even related subjects like carrying capacity to the game.
So the game served a couple purposes this year. First, it simulated an actual biome. My kids cannot actually visit the savanna and see the animals interact. However, the game put them right in the middle of it. They can see what the landscape looks like and, as David William Shaffer points out, like any good video game its value is in:
"...letting children live in worlds that they are curious about, or afraid of, or want desperately to be able to try out. As Vygotsky explains, all games are “the realization in play form of tendencies that cannot be immediately gratified.” In playing games, children are doing explicitly, openly, and socially what as adults they will do tacitly, privately, and personally. They are running simulations of worlds they want to learn about in order to understand the rules, roles, and consequences of those worlds. They are learning to think by examining alternatives in play, and from those experiences they are learning what it might mean to be… real and imagined characters in the world."
Second, and I said this earlier, the game engaged them like nothing else could have. Because they were interested in the game and challenged by it, my students found the concepts more interesting, particularly since I made sure that I continuously related them to the game.

Learning through video games is something that my students will hopefully have the chance to do for years to come. In fact, I'm looking for more ideas for games. Any ideas?

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