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Dan Lim and a student.

UMC professor Dan Lim, left, chats with a student.

The joy(stick)s of learning, Nintendo-style

By Brian Lieb

Published on August 18, 2004

For professors who produced their theses on typewriters, the idea of studying by playing a computer game may seem strange. After all, even fairly young faculty were well into their teens when computers first appeared in high schools and when video games advanced from simple action games to problem-solving trials. But for today's college students, advanced technology has always been available. In fact, video games are so prevalent in contemporary youth culture that research shows a change in hand coordination between the generations. "The younger generation [25 and under] has taken to using thumbs in a completely different way," says Sadie Plant, a researcher at Warwick University in England. A study produced by Warwick's Cybernetic Culture Research Unit showed that while the vast majority of adults use their index fingers to jab slowly at the keypads of their cell phones, youth instinctively, very quickly, and often without looking, use their thumbs. The likely cause: video games. And students have learned more from video games than just how to exploit their thumbs. Modern games challenge players with sequences of progressively more difficult obstacles that must be overcome by solving problems. On average, players take between 20 and 50 hours to beat the games. This model of learning and persistence in problem-solving is normal for contemporary college students. In a sense, games have literally helped them learn how to learn. Fortunately for both students and faculty, Dan Lim and his staff at the University of Minnesota, Crookston (UMC), have created a learning tool that can help students use their Nintendo-generation learning style to more effectively master course material. Lim, information technology management professor and director of UMC's Instructional Technology Center, has developed an academic game generator that retrieves questions from Web-driven databases for use in academic learning.

"Students play the games to win, and while they are playing, they are interacting with course content in a way that is compelling," says Dan Lim.

Developed in Macromedia Flash MX, the game generator allows educators to upload learning content to create games for their own classes. "Students who use games to learn are kept on the material longer because they are engaged and they spend more time on the content," says Lim. And students engaged in learning are more apt to persist in their education and are more likely to graduate. For students who have been gaming their entire lives, the problem-solving skills and persistence that they developed in video games translate directly to academic games. To students, the format is normal; comfortable. "Students play the games to win, and while they are playing, they are interacting with course content in a way that is compelling," says Lim. "Without even realizing it, they are learning." Lim notes that disciplines that contain difficult content or numerous facts work particularly well with academic gaming because the learner is challenged by the game, is compelled to play longer in order to win, and therefore, is more apt to master the content. Early users of the games at UMC seem to verify this. Close to two-thirds of students who used the learning games indicated that the games made difficult content easier to learn. Overall, 73 percent said the games helped them self-learn course materials. According to one UMC student, "I played it [the learning game] last night for about two hours, not to just study, but because it challenged me and I needed to beat it." Currently, UMC has games in various academic subjects and in five game formats. One format, the "challenge game," has 80 questions and 16 levels of difficulty. The game helps students gain confidence by starting them on relatively simple levels, then progressing through more difficult material, challenging students to sharpen their knowledge. The challenge game also allows instructors at any institution to upload content. Using UMC's Flash Games Web site (, instructors can create accounts and upload questions to create games that meet the needs of their particular classes. Already 15 institutions from around the country are using UMC's academic games.

From an original article in Gateway to Research and Inventions, summer 2004.

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