Learning Games

by Patricia McKellar on 03/08/2006

At the BILETA Conference in 2001 in Edinburgh there was a paper by Jim Tunney of Abertay University, Scotland called The Reflexive Relationship between Computer Games Technology ( CGT) and the Law. The paper argues for more use to be made of CGT and concludes ‘CGT is ideal for legal education in the widest sense for general and particular purposes. Its advent is inevitable. That many of the legal academy will be left out is also inevitable’. At that time I listened but couldn’t really see where it was going. Computer Games were a children’s toy not a recognised method of education and certainly not considered part of ‘E-Learning’. In 2001 even e-learning was seen as at the peripheral of mainstream teaching and learning in the legal education sphere  – and  trying to link CGT with education was pretty much way out left field. It’s clear since then that e-learning has become much more mainstream and I wonder if CGT has taken a few steps to move nearer to the centre.

Digital Game Based Learning ( DGBL) is taking a much more prominent position in education largely due to a number of evangelists such as Richard Van Eck and Mark Prensky who have written prolifically on the topic. Richard’s most recent article published in Educause March/April 2006, Digital Game Based Learning It’s Not Just the Digital Natives Who Are Restless, acknowledges that suddenly the educational world is taking notice of what he and his colleagues have been saying for a number of years now. He attributes this to the increase in research into the power of DGBL, the fact that students have become ‘disengaged with traditional instruction’ and the fantastic increase in the use of digital games. If DGBL is to become part of mainstream education Richard argues that there will have to be a ‘synergy between pedagogy and engagement in DGBL’ which involves research into why games are effective and how they can be used without losing the ‘fun’ element which attracts the students in the first place. This is no small task- there is a huge danger in letting loose the academics with their learning agenda and forgetting what makes these technologies continually attractive to the student.

So can DGBL be used in legal education. Of course, games can be used to teach lower level intellectual skills but we need to be able to harness the technology to do much more than that. Richard Van Eck talks of the ‘cognitive disequilibrium’ which a game can engender and how the level of engagement will largely depend on the ‘extent to which games foil expectations of the player without exceeding the capacity of the player to succeed’. That indeed is our challenge: to create games which will continue to engage and allow students to learn at the same time. While legal education in the UK is embracing, among other ‘games’, the current version of the virtual town simulation of Ardcalloch created by Paul Maharg, we must have one eye on the next step. Is it DGBL I wonder, and was Jim Tunney ahead of his time?

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