Videogame-based Learning Leads to 'Habits of Mind and Practice'

  • Ivan Alejandro (Alex) Games, Ph.D.
  • Assistant Professor
  • Department of Telecommunications, Information Studies and Media
  • College of Communication Arts and Sciences

Here is refreshing news for today's parents: playing video games is beneficial for the educational development of growing adolescents. This is the perhaps unexpected message of Dr. Ivan Alejandro (Alex) Games, a researcher dedicated to boosting how people learn, think, and solve problems. He is an enthusiastic proponent of using video-based learning curriculum like Gamestar Mechanic to accomplish some of those goals.

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As an Assistant Professor in the Department of Telecommunications, Information Studies and Media (TISM) in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, Dr. Games (pronounced Gah-mez), has a particular interest in the way game design can increase computational thinking and individual success with STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Despite his busy schedule, Games accepted an appointment on the board of directors for the Information Technology Empowerment Center (ITEC), and promptly reached out to create a partnership with César Chávez Academy High School in Detroit. The project is called The Science and Art of Game Design, and offers Saturday sessions for 8th graders to learn STEM skills with Gamestar Mechanic.

While Gamestar Mechanic is an adventure game, and the learning environment is relaxed, the 40-plus enthusiastic students that signed up are striving for significant learning accomplishments. Students must progress through the Quest, learning the principles of game design and systems thinking, earning 'sprites' that allow them to then create their own games. There are numerous incentives, including regular challenges and contests in a shared community of practice called Game Alley.

"I call this 'habits of mind and practice'," said Games. "We are teaching students how to approach complex problems, with multiple perspectives and variables. Adolescents have a great ability to learn how to connect the pieces together, and develop a full picture of how a system works."

Another passion for Games is working with Hispanic youth in underserved areas, in order to convey the same educational opportunities for 21st century skills in science, technology, engineering and math. He cites dropout rates and a decline in technology careers, while pointing to the model developed in the industrial era with the belief that all learners should think the same way. Games wants education to focus on creative thinking and problem solving, with active student participation.

"The partnership with César Chávez Academy High School exceeds our expectations for enthusiastic participation," said Kirk Riley, Executive Director of ITEC. "School administrators, teachers, students, and Dr. Games are all contributing to the experience. This is what we work toward, providing opportunities for individuals to build confidence in their understanding of technology. Perhaps this will be the spark for some of these students to pursue careers in science and technology."

Dr. Games firmly believes that video gaming should be compared to reading, not watching television. "The activities in a game like Gamestar Mechanic challenge youth to think and lead and strategize. A good book will inspire, and so will a well-designed videogame."

Interest in using games as an educational tool began early for Games. He grew up in Mexico City and began his career teaching computer science and English as a second language. He introduced videogame-based learning curriculum in the 1990s at Los Fresnos School. After earning a degree in computer systems engineering he moved to Texas and worked in research and development for National Instruments. He developed a strong interest in the way people learn when he supervised application engineers working with artificial intelligence, robotics, and information systems. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Along the way, he has deepened his commitment to Latino and Latina youth and their educational opportunities.

"One student came up to me and said 'I want to go to MIT...what do I do?' That kind of attitude inspires all of us," said Games.

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph courtesy of Paul Phipps, University Outreach and Engagement

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