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Kelsey Schmitz is looking at the value of video games in the classroom

Photo: Remi Yuan

Students of all ages spend a lot of time unwinding after class by playing video games. Kelsey Schmitz, a PhD student at the University of Ottawa, believes these video games have a place inside the classroom as well.

“The main goal of my research is to bring into education the idea that there are other areas that we learn from besides the curriculum,” said Schmitz. “Kids go home and sit in front of video games and that’s labelled entertainment, and that’s what we leave it as.”

Schmitz’s research also provides insight on education as a whole, according to her supervisor Awad Ibrahim, a U of O professor in the Faculty of Education.

“What Kelsey’s doing is looking at education in the broad sense,” said Ibrahim. “Why do people love certain games and not others, and why do people represent themselves in a particular way within games?”

The use of video games in the classroom is more than just an academic concept—Schmitz put it into practice when she taught at a high school. While teaching about Napoleon, Schmitz ran into a problem: the students weren’t interested.

“The faces in the room weren’t really that into it,” she said. “They weren’t connecting.”

Then she had an idea to use the video game called Napoleon: Total War in her class.

“I’m a gamer, and I was playing the game myself. I thought it would be great to try and engage my students on that level,” said Schmitz.

“In history classes growing up, we would play strategy board games where the teachers tried to engage us,” she said. “I wanted to take it a step further.”

Schmitz also suggested another teacher use the game Spore, a Sims-style game in which you nurture a creature through five stages of evolution, to help teach a Grade 9 science class.

The feedback from students was encouraging, she says. Some of Schmitz’s colleagues, however, were less impressed. “I got a lot of flak for it from my department,” she said.

But Schmitz maintains that video games can be a powerful tool in the classroom.

“They can be a practical tool to teach history or science, but they can be a critical tool too,” she said. “They can help if you’re talking about a social issue. Like if you’re being the Russian bomber in Call of Duty, what does that mean?”

Many of these games are also more academically and historically sound and a better information resource than most people think, says Schmitz. “The people who make Assassin’s Creed have several PhDs on their staff to make sure they get the history right, that they get the story right.”

Still, the concept of using popular video games for education is relatively new.

“Surprisingly, only now are people thinking of starting to make use of video games in schools,” said Ibrahim.

The use of video games in education also goes beyond the high school level.

“I realized I wanted to focus on how people created their digital identities, no matter the age. I think that has pedagogical implications for universities as well,” said Schmitz.

“It started off with me trying to bring it back to my classroom, but once I started digging into gaming culture as a learning culture, I realized that it never ends.”