Games As Knowledge Tools

Virtual world and games becoming key platforms to impart values, culture and critical thinking

By Afshan Ahmad

Published: Tue 9 Mar 2010, 12:57 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 3:08 AM

IT WAS the Na’vi tribe’s passion for their land and living beings that transcended the realms of the virtual world of ‘Avatar’ and was taken home by cinemagoers as a message to live in harmony with nature.

Virtual environments and games are increasingly growing as important platforms to imbibe values among young people.

Academics in the UAE are now honing a breed of socially responsible virtual application developers, who are moving away from traditional content of action and violence, to create content that imparts values, culture and critical thinking skills to digital natives.

“Students are being taught how to develop and design games that are knowledge driven,” said Dr Basel Dayyani, Associate Professor of IT at the American University in Dubai.

The university has signed a deal with Crytek, an award-winning German-Turkish video game company and developers of CryEngine that supports Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

“The game engine will be used to teach students how to create 3D edutainment games,” Dr Dayyani, said.

Many studies on the impact of violent video games in the past have highlighted their harmful cognitive effects on children and a potential consequence of emulation.

However, a new research published last year in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin on pro-social games concluded that children who are exposed to such games tend to have a positive effect on their behaviour and carry the impact of the content into their real life.

Co-author of the report Rowell Huesmann said the study documents that children and adolescents learn from practising behaviours in games.

Dayyani sees that as a new direction for game creators. “We are currently working on creating multiplayer games where people learn values like honesty, loyalty and helping others.

“Within two years we will also have developed games that will allow children to experience history, providing lessons in the Arab and Muslim culture.”

In 2008, the world’s first humanitarian video game in Arabic — ‘Food Force’ — was unveiled in Dubai. The game that is action oriented and educates about hunger and importance of aid work created by the World Food Programme (WFP) to raise awareness among students about the problem of global hunger.

Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, a UN Messenger of Peace, said the game is a means of sensitising the youth about the enormity of the issue of global hunger.

Student Mahdi Hosseini finds games that place a virtual gun in a child’s hand or egg kids to drive like maniacs in racing games unproductive and ‘a waste of time’. “They activate a part of the brain that causes an emotional arousal and can make children aggressive,” he said.

Second Life (SL), a 3D virtual world that allows people to live dual lives through Avatars, has become the basis for cultural exchange programmes for more than a hundred schools and universities that have campuses on it.

Dubai Women’s College is the only higher education institute in the UAE that owns an island in SL and has built a state-of-the-art college for foreign student tours.

Sharifa Hajjat, e-learning coordinator at the college, said the initiative provides students with a different learning experience.

“We have put a lot of thought into our virtual campus,” she said.

“Instead of the four walls classroom, we have a flying carpet with a cushion where students can sit and watch presentations,” she said.

The campus is open to all DWC students and teachers occasionally conduct classes and invite students from other universities for a tour of the island and the campus in SL.

“Technology is adding a different dimension to communication,” Hajjat said.

“When avatars get together, it imitates reality to a large extent.”

Year 3 student Shouq Bu Hamaid and her classmate’s avatars recently visited their counterparts at Korean University to experience the sights and sounds of South East Asia. In return, the Koreans were given a tour of the local mosque and shopping malls on the DWC Island.

“The conversations are on history, traditions, dressing, food and language,” Hamaid said.

“SL provides a very insightful and beneficial means to connect with cultures.”

Students can also start up businesses on SL and use the Linden dollar to buy products like jewellery and abayas in the virtual world.

Games are also being designed to teach language vocabulary, geography, money and strategy, at Dubai schools.

Dayyani said the university students will work with the schools to promote such content as a teaching resource. “As you move levels, students will travel to different countries and cipher and decipher words in the dictionary aiding the learning process,” he said.

Though action games will not lose their appeal, Mahdi said, the gaming industry is seeing a shift towards knowledge-based game content.

This Christmas, Microsoft is scheduled to release a ‘controller-free gaming and entertainment experience’ that enables users to control and interact with the XBOX 360 by using gestures, spoken commands or presented objects and subjects.

“It can be used to teach sports like tennis and football,” Mahdi said.

“If Microsoft succeeds, then it will provide a good ground for future development of edutainment games.”

More news from Education