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Educating through gaming

By Heidi Wicks

PhD Faculty of Education student Matthew White plans to incorporate a more contemporary twist to his career in education – one that most students will relish.

Mr. White is one of only 25 lucky recipients worldwide, who received a scholarship to attend the 2009 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Currently working towards writing his thesis on learning through the intervention of commercial over-the-shelf games versus those developed strictly for the purpose of education, he has loved games all his life.

“Games occupy a significant part of my free time,” Mr. White said. “I’ve written a few programs for various institutions, and once I learned programming, I had a bunch of game ideas floating around in my head for years. Programs like RPG Maker and Game Maker sort of helped me entertain the possibility that I’d be a designer of some kind, and here I am.”

Mr. White is quite the Doogie Howser of PhD candidates (he turned 22 several months ago and is one of this country’s three youngest, according to Statistics Canada). As far as career goals go, he’d like to work in education through games and simulations – either at a university or developing new software/hardware.

“There’s some great advancement in brain-controlled computing that really interests me,” he said. “I also have always wanted to be a professional game designer – start my own studio and really start something revolutionary.”

The Game Developers Conference is the largest gathering of industry professionals in North America, so it will be a phenomenal opportunity for networking with the most important and influential minds in the gaming industry – an immeasurably invaluable opportunity for Mr. White.

“Digital games represent everything that I believe exemplifies good education,” said Mr. White. “Games are moving toward becoming player-centred, and more and more games are allowing players to be authors of their own experience. Some of the most notable games are Little Big Planet and Spore. Games are procedural in that content is generated dynamically to exactly match the player’s abilities, keeping them constantly engaged. And they provide immediate player-specific feedback and encouragement. It’s hard to imagine a more personalized experience – which ideally, education should strive to be.”

Mr. White also referenced Metal Gear Solid VI: Guns of the Patriots as one of his favourite recent games, stating that the game deals with complex issues that most games don’t touch, such as ethics of human cloning and the hidden and moving forces behind American and world political economies.

Regarding the great debate on whether video games rot the brains of youth and create an anti-social generation, Mr. White clearly disagrees.

“Games can help us tap into how we can best harness the latent power of digital games to be intrinsically motivating, entertaining, engaging, and extremely complex, and put the knowledge and skills that players are learning toward our various educational foci. Certain games prompt players to examine complex issues and what’s more important is that the players are actively choosing to do this of the own volition.”

Mr. White also added that while growing up in a log cabin with a single mother (his father passed away when he was three years old) and several siblings, his mother tried to nurture his intelligence at every opportunity – including by playing games with him (both on the television and outside) and discussing them.

“I owe much of my success to the hard work my mother put into keeping me alive and happy,” he said.

He is looking forward to working with creative and determined minds, to expand and improve the worlds of both gaming and education.

“Derivative works or a stagnation of creativity represent one of the most serious issues facing the games industry - the same can be said for education, in some ways,” he said. “Allowing games designers with unique ideas to get together at conferences like these is planting the seeds for some of the most magnificent games we'll likely ever see. Furthermore, many of the creative minds that have inspired my work, such as legendary creators Will Wright and Hideo Kojima will be in attendance, and I'll be doing my best to attend sessions/talks given by or pertaining to them.”