The Crossroads of Education & Gaming

by Jeff Vance

Photos by Natalie Fobes & James Marshall

Tom Gibbons '90

When the Microsoft Xbox 360 launched in 2005, Tom Gibbons '90 helped make sure the console hit stores in time for the Christmas season. Gibbons was the leader of the accessories team, and he learned just how important a so-called accessory can be to the overall success of a game system.

"What most people think about when it comes to accessories is gamepads, but we had fourteen accessories just for the initial launch." The Xbox 360 accessories ran the gamut from wireless gamepads to headsets, memory units, and networking adapters.

Through his work on accessories, Gibbons made some interesting observations that led him to rethink how technology and people interact. First off, Gibbons and his team realized that accessories are actually central to the gaming experience. Without a gamepad, there is no way to interact with the game. Without a good network - considered an accessory for Xbox 360 - there is no interactive gaming.

"There's an endless set of possibilities just for accessories," Gibbons said, "but as we looked forward to how users would experience a game, we started thinking less about physical things and more about user experiences and how to improve them."

Defining "an experience" can be a nebulous task, but Gibbons said that Xbox 360, through its networking function, has opened new doors for multiplayer games, with players interacting from all over the globe.

Multiplayer online games are nothing new, or that's the perception at least. "Massively multiplayer games have been around for a while, especially with PC-based games, but there aren't that many titles that are networked, and entire gaming genres have been ignored," Gibbons said.

When a developer decides to network a game, the networking is done game by game. What Gibbons and his team did was develop a platform approach. By providing the infrastructure that allows game developers to add networking capabilities easily, developers can focus on their games. They don't have to be networking experts too.

Creating Experiences, not Technology
Gibbons has moved on from the Xbox 360 team and is now VP of Consumer Productivity, but a lot of what he learned about the importance of creating experiences guides him in his work today. "A big part of what we're pushing for here at Microsoft as a company is not just gaming or productivity but broader interactive experiences."

Much of Gibbons work at Microsoft is being mirrored here at Bowdoin by the Information Technology department and the professors who use technology as a way for students to experience course content, rather than passively taking it in through lectures and readings.

"The goal is to engage students in a medium they know," said Mitch Davis, Bowdoin's CIO. At first glance, the strategy seems to be a bait-and-switch one: engage students with an amenable interface, and before they know it, they're learning valuable educational lessons. But it goes beyond that. Educators are learning from gaming and technology, realizing that certain skills are better grasped through new mediums.

Not too long ago the attitude of educators, legislators, and adults in general to games went something like this: games rot the brain, make kids fat, and encourage passivity.

Recently, that line of thinking started to fall out of favor. For every Senator's rant about gaming's destructive content, there are several counterarguments about the value of gaming and technology. Books like Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You champion gaming's merit. Articles have appeared in journals like Inside Higher Ed that advocate incorporating gaming techniques into the curriculum, and entire conferences, such as Edutainment 2006, are now devoted to the intersection of gaming and education.

“A big part of what we're pushing for her at Microsoft as a company is not just gaming or productivity but broader interactive experiences.”

Critics first acknowledged the value of gaming as a training tool. The Air Force has long used flight simulators, and the Army credits its America's Army online game for boosting recruitment. Similarly, medical schools are turning to simulations to help train surgeons.

For the typical liberal arts student, though, does gaming fit in as well? Bowdoin's IT experts believe it does. "Gaming teaches students to work in teams, to be independent, and to work in unstable environments," Davis said.

Of course, many of the criticisms of gaming remain true, and a split has emerged, with games such as SimCity and Age of Empires lauded for their educational merit, while those in the vein of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas are condemned for their violence and graphic depictions of sex.

However, researchers are starting to find that even games with few socially redeeming values seem to teach certain skills, most notably independent critical thinking. "If you look at the typical video game title, you won't find much by way of instruction manuals," Gibbons said. "Most video game providers have discovered that it's not worth printing the paper to include anything but the most basic manuals." The typical gaming manual explains what each button does, but there is little beyond that. "Gamers go in and figure it out for themselves, and that process develops very advanced cognitive reasoning."

Learning by Doing
The concept of figuring things out on the fly, or learning by doing, is another idea gaining attention in education lately. Once common - any apprenticeship, after all, is learning by doing - the concept had fallen out of favor, replaced by lectures, out-of-context problem solving, reading, and tests. Active learning had been supplanted by passive learning.

Then, in the early 1990s, Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered how the brain connects learning and doing. In essence, it doesn't - or, rather, it barely distinguishes between the two. Through the use of what Rizzolatti called "mirror neurons," when the brain witnesses an action or concept, it behaves almost as if it were performing that action. The brain essentially rehearses the action as it sees it, and the motor cortex is eager to transition from seeing or hearing to doing. Only with the actual doing, though, does the brain reinforce its initial understanding, translating that into true learning.

Athletes have understood this concept since time immemorial. Many training techniques are based on seeing or being told an action and then performing it, over and over, until it becomes second nature. The idea was to achieve muscle memory. What was overlooked was that the brain's memory works in a similar fashion.

In higher education, Rizzolatti's research has had a trickle-down effect, but not every concept can be so easily translated into action. How does the motor cortex aid you in understanding existential philosophy? What about history? A problem for historians has long been how to reinterpret historical events based on new records or data. For instance, we may know that Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election, but do we really understand why? And when we find new data, do we deepen our understanding, or do we simply adapt things to our pre-existing notions?

Maps to Learning
Art History can be equally difficult to understand. Trends in painting styles or gallery distributions aren't things that students can learn by doing. However, through the use of new technologies, Bowdoin educators are finding that abstract information can be translated into more visual representations, which are far easier for students to grasp.

Pamela Fletcher

Just as performing an action reinforces conceptual learning, so too a visual representation reinforces an abstract concept. This is nothing new, either, the basis of mnemonic tricks, but in practice it has been overlooked in education.

One of the new technologies that visually render abstract concepts is called GIS, or Geographic Information Systems. According to, GIS is "a collection of computer hardware, software, and geographic data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information."

Assistant Professor of Art History Pamela Fletcher uses a GIS-based program to track the emergence of art galleries in places like London and New York. Today, art galleries are considered an important indicator of a healthy urban neighborhood, but that wasn't always the case.

According to Fletcher, art galleries as we know them began in the mid-19th century. Before then, people went directly to the artists. Since their emergence, the number of art galleries in a neighborhood helps determine a place's cultural relevance, and the arrival of new galleries to a neighborhood that previously lacked them often indicates that real estate values will soon spike.

Educators are learning from gaming and technology, realizing that certain skills are better grasped through new mediums.

To study how galleries influence other social trends, Fletcher pores through historical documents and maps the results. Her maps show not just where galleries were located, but also point to other developments, giving visual information about how galleries fit into larger social and geographical schemes.

Projects like Fletcher's have an added benefit: they help bridge the research-teaching divide. Fletcher did her initial work on London art galleries, but once she had a platform and methodology in place, she gave her students the task of tracking similar trends in New York.

Mapping Historical Trends
A similar project is Associate Professor of History Dr. Patrick Rael's study of historical trends through GIS-based mapping. "Mapping helps us explore patterns in data that would otherwise not emerge," Rael said. "It does this by offering us a spatial representation of data that would otherwise be presented in tables."

The problem with tables is that they often bury information, rather than highlighting it. With advanced mapping tools, tabular information is linked back to its context.

Rael previously had success with an online simulation, Flight to Freedom. Similar to Oregon Trail, a game that taught a generation of grade- and middle-schoolers the difficulties of pioneering west, Flight to Freedom simulates slave life in the South. Players choose a character, learn about that person's situation, and select the proper time to escape. If the escape is successful, they still must dodge pursuers, fight hunger, and scrounge up enough money to make it out of the South to the North, where, if all goes well, they achieve and maintain freedom.

Mitch Davis
Mitch Davis

The simulation teaches students lessons that slave narratives and historical representations often overlook. For instance, while a slave had a reasonable chance of escaping north alone success was unlikely if an entire family tried to escape at once. The larger the party, the lower the probability of success.

That may seem obvious, but what is less obvious until the game is played is how strong the concept of family remained in slave communities, despite the efforts of slave owners to undermine it. Family was so strong in slave communities that many slaves chose slavery with family over freedom on their own.

Mapping played a supporting role in Flight to Freedom, but in Rael's new project, it takes center stage. Rael and his students are compiling historical data and using mapping software to highlight regional trends. For instance, they have gathered data from the 1860 presidential election. Through the visual representations, they can identify the counties in the South that voted most heavily for the Southern Democrat John Breckenridge, rather than for Lincoln. Of the four parties in that election, the Southern Democrats were most sympathetic to secession.

"The past plays out in time and space, so a fundamental way to think about past is through place," Rael said. Textbooks do a good job of capturing time, but the movement through space is often ignored. Thus, when we study Lincoln, we study his progress through time, overlooking much about how place influenced his life. Mapping corrects this oversight.

With mapping information in hand, the students can compare various data points to find out, for instance, what type of person was most likely to vote for Breckenridge. Did the Southern Democrats enjoy the greatest support in large slaveholding counties? Or did support for the party come from counties with very little slaveholding? What, then, was the relationship between slaveholding and Southern Democratic Party support?

What is impossible to miss through this visual representation is that Lincoln had little support in the South, was not even listed on the ballots of nine southern states, and yet still won the popular election, meaning he had overwhelming support outside of the South. Breckenridge won the South, but had even less support than Lincoln outside of his own region.

Christina Finneran
Christina Finneran

The visual representation of this data shows a country far more polarized than today's bemoaned red-state-blue-state split. Again, that sounds obvious. We fought a Civil War back then, after all, but many history books often make it sound like Lincoln talked a reluctant North into a war that had shaky popular support. The maps show that the nation was actually deeply divided well before Lincoln took office.

Rael hopes to see mapping used in more disciplines. After all, this is a nation where geographical illiteracy is at an all-time high. "Maps often accompany history textbooks, and there are even a few workbooks on historical geography, but they tend to be of a very simple variety," Rael said. For instance workbook questions will engage students with simplistic tasks like naming the rivers in a particular region.

"What we're interested in doing is challenging students to think about maps at a much higher level. I want them to use maps to actually analyze problems, not simply illustrate text," he added.

Lost in the Software Funhouse
Sentiments like these are at the heart of the drive to incorporate technology into the higher-education curriculum. Certain educational technologies, like Blackboard and WebCT, have been catching on nationwide, but too often they are under-utilized by students and avoided by the faculty.

Part of the problem is a business-as-usual attitude, with some faculty reluctant to leave their comfort zones. Part of the problem is that students already have technology they prefer, such as their own IM clients and text-messaging platforms. Part of the problem is a lack of training for faculty, due to constrained budgets, and yet another part of the problem is the technology itself.

"In the business-software world, everyone is excited about new collaborative tools," Microsoft's Gibbons said. "The fact that two people can conference and collaborate on a PowerPoint presentation at the same time over the Internet is considered an important achievement. From the standpoint of your average gamer, this is trivial."

Another Campus View
students on cell phones

In our new world of omnipresent technology, we're never far from some sort of electronic communication. Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster talks with Bowdoin magazine and reflects on some ways that he sees our virtual connectivity affecting personal community on campus.

"What distinguishes [us], the small residential liberal arts institution, is those intimate associations, and that sense of community, that close-knit community-it's the personal relationships, it's the human contact and the human engagement. The part I worry about with the technological revolution is the degree to which technology isolates people. And, I know there's another argument to be made for things like [the social networking website] Facebook or even the cell phone - different from [college a few years ago]. I want to find [someone] to go to lunch; I pick up my cell-'Hey, where are you?' 'Right over here!' 'There you are! Wanna get together for lunch?' 'Great.' And we're having lunch together. That didn't happen here even five years ago.

"There's a whole other piece and that's the degree to which we allow these things to manage our lives. At a place like Bowdoin, I believe the experience is defined by the people who surround you-the personal interactions you have with one another. With technology being what it is today, I think it's really easy to retreat to a more impersonal space. What I worry the level of disengagement that comes with the [habitual retreat into technology]. Each person needs his or her place to escape to and unwind, and I think that's fine; it's just [not good] if you allow gaming, IMing and I-Poding to become the default.

"...It's foolish to sit back and say that we should keep these things at arms' distance. We don't want to be chasing windmills. Yet...too many people allow [technology] to run their lives as opposed to using it as a tool. Voicemail, email, they were designed to be tools for us. This generation of students has a hard time just 'hanging out'. It's multitasking all the time. People are Treo-ing while they're walking across campus. Where's the down time and time for reflection? It's lost!

"Then there's the alternative view that certain technologies can actually help build community. For instance, there are people who would argue that Facebook can become an outlet for people to get to know each other better...I just don't find this to be as authentic a form of communication and interaction as face-to-face. And that's our comparative advantage in my mind-the human nature of the Bowdoin experience. It's those intimate associations-whether you're playing on a team with one another, living in a residence hall, dining in Thorne, or working in a study group-and these aren't going to be replaced by technology.

"Bowdoin is certainly a personal place, and [I don't think that will change] but we need to think about how we can use technology to create community and bring people together. We are doing that in the classroom with technological tools such as Blackboard and this is creating an even more powerful learning experience. But this is different than holing up in your room and playing 'Nofriendo.'

"We had a power failure on campus [two years ago], and email and computers shut down, right in the middle of prime study time in the winter. It was not a short outage, and everyone [on campus] started to congregate at Thorne (there are generators, so there were lights). It was amazing because people didn't know [how long the power would be off] and they just hung out. I heard from students who said that the power failure was one of the great campus events. Students couldn't be on-line and they spontaneously gathered with nothing scheduled and no agenda. It just became time to hang out and talk to one another. Maybe we should periodically throw the switch!"

The common rich-media environment where gamers meet and play is vastly more advanced than the typical educational title. Moreover, students are used to communication options that are easy to use. While Blackboard and WebCT are valuable communication and course management tools, their lack of intuitive interfaces indicates that their designers could learn something from game developers.

Students and faculty don't just go into Blackboard and WebCT and figure them out, and even if they are motivated to do so, educational software doesn't engage the user in as logical a fashion as games do. Thus, training is a must.

This is where Bowdoin is ahead of the curve. According to Christina Finneran, Acting Manager of Education and Research Consulting for the Information Technology department, when Bowdoin introduced Blackboard campus-wide in the fall of 2005, there was a 40% adoption rate. This is unheard of. Administrators usually have to threaten and cajole faculty to get them to embrace technology.

The key, Finneran said, is accepting that training is essential and investing in it - and offering workshops over lunch hour doesn't cut it. Instead, Bowdoin gave faculty members a summer stipend to learn Blackboard and participate in workshops. "But it's more than just teaching a set of tools," Finneran said. "We spent a lot of the time on conceptual ideas. How does this new technology affect classroom dynamics? What does the research say about its overall effectiveness? How do you go about implementing it in a non-disruptive way? What work is appropriate for the classroom and what is best done online?"

Building Community
Finneran also emphasized something Microsoft is trumpeting these days: community. "One of the great things about technology is that it helps you develop a community within the classroom. Our faculty would say, 'we're so small that we don't need to worry about community building. We're already a community.'" What Finneran found, however, is that tools like Blackboard strengthened an already strong community. Blackboard broke down the barriers between the usual cliques. People found new working partners they wouldn't have otherwise, and social boundaries were removed.

Gibbons saw something similar with his work on the Xbox 360. "There is a lot of social learning that takes place with connected gaming," Gibbons said. "In a game like Fable, if you want to be a mean, nasty person, you can, but there are a ton of consequences. That doesn't mean you can't win the game, but you must overcome the consequences first."

In the Consumer Productivity Division, Gibbons said he's applying what he learned from games to help him with productivity software. "We're looking for new
ways to infuse technology with a social aspect," he said. Gibbons argues that too much of collaborative technology still involves users in isolation. "Yes, they work together on a project, but they are physically separated, or if they are in the same room, they stare at a video monitor," he said.

While a person working alone can connect to someone through email or a phone call, that's not the same as building a community. "It doesn't have the same social value," Gibbons said. "We're looking at user scenarios in work or play where people can interact directly, with technology aiding that interaction, instead of hampering it."

Gibbons also emphasized responsibility. Social responsibility is something arguably discussed more on campuses than anywhere else. Gibbons believes that social responsibility can be nudged along with technology. While that nudging may be as simple as forcing parents to scroll through parental controls in order to access an online gaming environment, it can also involve more advanced concepts like teaching game players to accept delayed gratification or to understand cause and effect.

Conversely, one of the fears critics have when it comes to technology in the classroom is that the classroom will disappear. Critics see technology as a threat to community. Students will work in isolation at home, attending virtual classrooms, and they'll never see a teacher face-to-face.

Of course, at large universities where lecture halls are filled with hundreds of students, few students meet face-to-face with their teachers anyway, so any tool that leads to communication is an improvement. But what about a small college like Bowdoin? Should students worry that technology could undermine what they most value about Bowdoin: its tight-knit sense of community?

If people like Tom Gibbons, Christina Finneran, Patrick Rael, and Mitch Davis have their way, the opposite will happen. "Bowdoin is very much a personal environment where things work because of relationships," Finneran said. "Within IT, we don't forget that. Our goal is to respond to people's needs."