Exploring the use of digital gaming in teaching

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It is the general purpose of the research that is currently being undertaken to explore the use of digital gaming in teaching and learning of mathematics in order to meet up educational goals. The study is specifically being conducted in the setting of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the aim of looking at the effect of digital gaming to teaching mathematics, that is, either enhancing teaching or learning or looking at the possibility of digital gaming not having any positive effect at all in achieving educational goals.

There is voluminous information in the literature about digital gaming being used in the educational setting, more frequently in science and mathematics-related subjects. Eck (2006) asserts that digital game-based learning has been unpopular for years until 2006 but starting 2003 the interest in the utilization of digital games to support learning in various fields have already started (Wolz et al, 2005). Habgood et al (2005), on the other hand mention that since the 1980s, there has been substantial literature showing how digital games are actually related to education and learning. Since 2006, there has been a growing interest in the use of digital games for learning and according to the author, proponents of this type of teaching have been quite taken aback by the changes that have been happening. According to Eck (2006), this can be largely attributed to three important factors.

The first of these factors is that proponents of digital game-based learning have unfailingly continued research on this new learning aspect and publishing them through books, essays and articles with authors such as Marc Prensky, James Paul Gee and Clark Aldrich, to name a few. In the web, one would find a volume of information that discusses about digital games as tools for learning, some presenting the theoretical constructs underlying the tool while other readings provide empirical researches that aimed to achieve specific goals in digital game-based learning.

Secondly, the current generation which is basically the Internet generation and alternatively, Eck (2006) calls the "digital natives" play a large role in the wide acceptance of digital games as learning tools. Individuals who were basically borne and have practically lived the Net generation adapt well to a fast-paced life welcoming and synthesizing various kinds of information at any one time. The "digital natives" as Eck (2006) relates, somehow became disentangled with the conventional ways of learning and usually enjoys quick interactions. Also, excellent visual skills used for learning are what embody the current generation and this skill is something that would enormously favor digital game-based learning. Hoyles and Noss (2006) even mention that children, with the emerging interest in games as tools for learning, even enhance their abilities to design their own games and play with them after, using certain tools, one of which is the Playground, where in general, children are able to manipulate animated characters.

The increased fame that games have basically acquired through the years is the third factor that says why digital game-based learning is widely accepted as of recent. Digital games are just everywhere and come in various media, hence making it more accessible to the general public and hence more appreciated.

As if to further establish how games have been used to enhance learning today, Prensky (2001) describes the many opportunities connected with digital games-based learning. The author asserts however that digital games are only alternatives used by educational institutions to further student learning. According to him, a new paradigm of learning has emerged and this is learning through playing. He cites some of the activities which are primarily digital games incorporated in various levels of education. Some of these are typing games, pre-school learning of the alphabet through computers and computer chess being used by K-12 students. For adult learners, like in the case of those training in the military, the real battle in the battlefield has been re-created through digital games and military trainees have to play these games that resemble a realistic battle as simulations of the true battle that has to happen when they serve the country. Indeed, the computers and the software for digital games that have been created and made more realistic by software experts have provided modes of learning for young and adult learners.

Digital Games in Education

Sandford and Williamson (2005) describe computer games and video games as digital applications which individual or groups of players control using a personal computer or some other media such as a PlayStation.

The authors suggest that by playing digital games, players are able to hone skills in facing challenges that are more complex than what they encounter in school. The environment that digital games provide to players is a learning environment. While playing, gamers are confronted with challenging situations that they need to resolve to succeed in the game. This provides players the skill to face realistic problems of the same kind in the future.

While playing, gamers are also provided alternatives which mean they have to engage themselves in some decision-making exercise and be able to experience the consequences of their decisions or actions. Identifying with the characters of the game is also another aspect that players deal with when playing computer or video games. Particularly in role-playing games, players are also able to enhance their vocabulary, familiarizing themselves with the terms used in the game that usually come because of the devices that the character in the game has to use. In this way, players will learn to understand the whole character being portrayed in the game. Socialization is also enhanced by digital games as players would normally be affiliated with certain groups which have common goals while playing.

Squire (2003) relates some of the characteristics of digital games which make it useful for the educational setting. A digital game provides players with drill and practice. Currently, this function of computer games makes it important for educators because of its incorporation into the traditional curriculum as exercises that will enrich the learning of the students as they immerse through it during individual study times. The other attribute of digital games that makes it useful for the educational setting is the existence of simulation and strategy games. Simulation games provide the players a picture of the reality, within the walls of the house, the classroom or a computer shop. Squire (2003) shares two types of simulations used and these are low-fidelity and hi-fidelity simulations. Hi-fidelity simulations try as close as possible to mimic the interactions and situations that may be experienced if it were to happen in real life. Low-fidelity simulations, on the other hand, are meant to provide system simplification so that some important components of the system may be highlighted. Video games that are both educational and entertaining allow the student players to manipulate some variables which in real life, an ordinary student cannot alter just yet. Players can also learn about different subjects of interest when they engage in educational games that will make them assume a certain role or personality. In this way, the student is also given the chance to view situations in various perspectives. Digital games also make it possible for the players to visualize a particular in 3-dimensional space hence increasing understanding of the matter.

Gros (2007) asserts that digital games can be used by learners to acquire knowledge and learn certain strategies. The author cites the study conducted by Nussbaum and colleagues in 1999 with 300 fourth year students as subjects. A series of games in language and mathematics was developed using Gameboy and that the games have characters that the students can identify with. In mathematics specifically, the goal of having the students play the game is to familiarize themselves with the fundamental structure of skills and mathematical thinking as well as learning arithmetic and geometry. The teachers were able to also learn using the instrument used in the experiment in 2 to 3 months and feedbacks from the educators themselves reveal that videogame is an instrument that is easily learned and used and can serve as additional teaching material that they can use as back-up for the conventional teaching materials that they are already using.

Games have also found its usefulness in Science and Engineering subjects, in general. In the education system of the United States Science and Engineering, Mayo (2007) asserts that video games have played important roles in addressing deficiencies in the system because of five primary reasons. One of these reasons is massive reach. The Internet has provided a way for individuals, students and even those who are already in the working class, to get access to digital games. Some of these games can be downloaded for free, while others have to be purchased. Also, the games need not be violent as there are games that educate users about various disciplines. As the author relates, these games are not actually part of the educational system as students did not access these games through the four walls of the classroom but just the same, students learn.

The second reason is effective learning paradigms. The act of playing video games is associated with enhanced learning outcomes because the following skills are being honed while playing: experiential and inquiry-based learning, self-efficacy, goal setting, cooperation or team playing and continuous feedback (Mayo, 2007).

Enhanced brain chemistry is the third reason behind the potential of video games in addressing problems in education. Mayo (2007) asserts that a study in 1998 established the relationship between the amount of dopamine present in the brain of the player and his/her performance in the game. Dopamine serves to stimulate learning of the player. It must be taken into consideration, however, that the game tested in the 1998 study is not educational in nature and hence subsequent studies are still necessary.

Time on gaming task is the fourth reason as players usually take more than a couple of hours to play digital games. If lessons in school have to be incorporated in these games, effectively, then it is combining entertainment with learning and students now take more time learning than they did before with conventional learning.

The last of these five reasons is learning outcomes data which suggest that have already been studies conducted which compared the learning outcomes of students subjected to games while learning and those under the traditional learning. It must be considered however that the games used in the evaluations are not the popular commercial games that can be seen played today, but then the "not-so-big-time" games are still digital games and hence part of the concern of looking how these games can improve learning (Mayo, 2007).

Squire et al (2004) elaborate on an empirical study conducted among 96 students, of which 61 were assigned to the experimental group and 35 to the control group. The experimental group played Supercharged! In their Physics class apart from the interactive lectures on electrostatics and other supplement materials provided to them by the teacher. The same teacher provided electrostatics lessons to the control group through interactive lessons, observations and experiments. Supercharged! Is an electromagnetism simulation game developed through the help of John Belcher, an MIT physicist? The game itself is mainly planning and playing as players have to go through electromagnetic mazes and playing with charges to control a ship. Results of the study showed that students belonging to the experimental group had better performance than those in the control group in terms of concept comprehension.

Just to add to the discussion on the innovations done for learning, in universities, where higher education can be acquired, technology has also been embraced. Together with this are the developments effected in order to provide learning to college students. Brown (2001) asserts that in this digital age, the universities have also done their part in improving education. One of the innovations that have been taken is the integration of studio courses as replacement for lecture-based introductory courses. In the studio courses, the students have the chance to experience lecture, recitation and laboratory, all in one integrated course. The faculty is also being given a better environment to teach interactive lessons. The studio courses accommodate large classes but can handle an array of activities, digital and non-digital within the class.

The MIT Media Lab is another innovation that has been brought to the universities. In this lab, theory and application are brought together in one class. The lab provides the class a collaborative environment where students can work out solutions to real life problems despite being confined in the lab.

Brown (2001) also adds that computer games, specifically, role-playing games (RPG) with multiple players online have also transformed the ways of learning. In RPGs, players do not only compete but they are also able to create and establish groups. The higher education sees this as a model for building a networked learning environment. Players, by engaging in RPGs experience interaction with other players as they swap their gears and techniques among members of their group. The students' creative and strategic skills are also being honed as they try to expand their roles within the game.

The literature discussing the use of digital games in mathematics education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) seems to be scarce. Al-Wakeel (2001) asserted that in the past, universities in KSA lack enough computer education programs which are also of high-quality. There have been efforts to strengthen computer education in KSA but have failed not because the intentions were not good but because design of the programs was not planned well. Moreover, there is a notable scarcity in professionals who are nationals who could teach computer education. This is evident in the past programs training of computer professionals who came from outside KSA. There is also concern in research of computer applications that can be used to improve education. To address this, KSA revamped its educational system with the establishment of Comprehensive Education Programs in the College of Computer and Information Sciences (CCIS).

With such move, although there are also obstacles hurdled, research in computer education may be done including the exploration of the use of digital games in teaching mathematics to KSA students.

Because of perceived scarcity of researches done in this area in KSA, this research will be primarily done to explore the use of digital games in learning and teaching mathematics to benefit and facilitate educational goals, with particular setting in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This research will be conducted in order to investigate the effect of digital game-based learning to students' motivation and academic performance, particularly among students in the secondary level of education.

The Future of Digital Games-Based Learning

Digital games provide means of achieving a number of goals. Prensky (2001) relates that through digital games-based learning, motivation for learning subjects that are difficult to teach can now be achieved. This motivation works in both ways. If the student finds subjects to be boring, then incorporating digital games into the subject will make it interesting. On the other hand, if the student finds the lesson too complex, then digital games can be used to provide an alternative way of presenting the subjects to the class in a way that will direct the feeling of being difficult to something that they will learn and enjoy at the same time.

The use of digital games in learning also provides an opportunity for a concerted effort among people in different fields such as teachers, content experts and digital game developers. In terms of the existence of the Internet, the use of digital games in teaching and learning will result to having the Internet not only as a medium of education but will be a lively venue of forum for users and producers of games to arrive at new concepts everyday for learning that will make its way through the learners via digital games. There will also be a continuous thinking of how digital games can be improved and innovated to best serve the purpose of bringing education to the students at its fullest potential, thereby producing graduates will well-rounded personalities who can make decisions not only in hypothetical situations but in realistic conditions as well.

Squire (2003) believes that since the 1980s, there has been a significant improvement in the gaming technology but then incorporating these improvements into learning environments is one lacking step in order for digital game-based learning to flourish. The author comes up with his thoughts on the future of video gaming in education.

First off, the author suggests that educators have been keen on purchasing educational and entertaining digital games that are commercially available nowadays. According to the author, there is increased frequency in the use of 'edutainment' but then there is not much evidence-based research which has been conducted to show how these games actually work. Design experiments must be incorporated into the work of games research so as to make educational games be more useful for instructional technologists and hence establish research from there.

Secondly, instructional technologists who design the interactive learning environments of learning games can also get lessons from the present innovations in gaming. The author cites two aspects of gaming that according to him have not been fully studied and these are interactive fiction and online gaming. Interactive fiction will provide instructional technologists information on how characters can evolve and develop in an interactive environment. Online gaming, on the other hand, can provide instructional technologists valuable information on the design of online environments.

Finally, by merely taking a close look at all the digital games that have abound nowadays in whatever medium such as those streaming in the internet or games installed in personal computers, one would actually find himself amazed at how the design, sounds and graphics have evolved through the years. The many games found online as well as those played in video houses and in the comfort of the homes have all passed through improvements. The graphics almost resemble that of real-life individuals as well as the movements of the objects in the digital game. Aesthetics has continuously improved to the pleasure of consumers. Perhaps, for educational games, this can also be done. The creativity in coming up with new designs and new games is one of the facets of digital game-based learning that can be improved in the future.