Educational Gaming Has All the Right "MUVEs"

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Educational Gaming Has All the Right "MUVEs"

There are few pursuits that have historically been able to waste as much time, for as many people, as do video games and Web surfing. Therefore it’s particularly exciting to discover that researchers from Harvard University, with funding from the National Science Foundation, have found ways to harness the power of online games and virtual worlds for educational purposes rather than killing time. The River City project, recently developed at Harvard, has the look and feel of a multi-user video game, but contains content based on National Science Standards.

Students who use River City enter a town that is beset with health problems. They then form research teams to figure out what’s making people sick. They can track clues, develop controlled experiments to test hypotheses, and make recommendations based on their lab work. According to an educational Web site called Thejournal.com,1 about 60 teachers, with a total of 4,000 students worldwide, are now participating in the River City project,

River City represents a new trend, not only in high school and college education, but also in business training. The trend is built around what online application developers call a MUVE, which stands for multi-user
virtual environment
.

Today, MUVE researchers are seeking to answer the question: “What would happen if a technology that so completely enthralls a new generation can be turned to educational purposes?” Many educators, such as the ones at Harvard, believe that it will reduce absenteeism, increase concentration, enhance learning, and develop skills faster than traditional methods, which often seem lost on today’s students.

In a typical MUVE video game, each user creates a character to represent himself or herself. Known as an avatar, the character moves around in the virtual world and typically fights off bad guys or collects treasure and weapons. In an educational MUVE, characters in the virtual world can answer questions or provide information. Both games and educational MUVEs involve exploration, but they have different goals for success.

For example, in River City, students must gather data to determine the source of the epidemic and then find a cure. To do that, the students interact with residents of River City and look at archival photos from the 1800s provided by the Smithsonian Institute. They have virtual microscopes with which they can view disease-causing agents. In the virtual world, students at different schools can converse and compare notes.

The idea behind River City is to create scientifically literate citizens who are able to think critically, make sense of complex data, and solve problems...

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