by Ed Webb
Ed Webb is an assistant professor of political science and international studies at Dickinson College and a founder of Dickinson’s Middle East Studies program. Formerly a member of Britain’s Diplomatic Service, his teaching and research interests in the Middle East include secularism, nationalism, education, authoritarianism, and media. He has experimented for several years with digital and social media in and around the classroom and served on NITLE’s inaugural advisory board (2009-11).
Why use computer games in a liberal arts educational context? In general, their educational potential is recognized because there is significant evidence that “learning is most effective when it is active, experiential, situated, problem-based and provides immediate feedback,” all features that can be found in games (Connolly, Boyle, MacArthur, Hainey & Boyle, 2012, 661). At their best, games “are motivating, provide immediate feedback, can adapt themselves to the level of the learner, provide repetition to the point of automaticity, encourage distributed learning, can teach for transfer, and use other excellent teaching techniques” (Gentile, 2011, 75). We can be reasonably confident that games are an effective delivery mechanism ofcontent (Gentile, 2011, 77) even while bearing in mind calls for the production of more robust evidence of this through randomized control trials (Connolly et al, 2012, 671-2).
How well can this potential be realized in support of liberal arts learning? I take the purpose of liberal arts to be engendering a set of aptitudes and habits of mind with a scientist’s informed skepticism at the core, along the lines of those set out by Bill Durden, including: “how to ask the right questions, how to gather information, how to make informed decisions, how to see connections among disparate areas of knowledge” (Durden 2012). There is evidence that in the right circumstances games can evoke scientific habits of mind and social knowledge construction (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008) and increase cognitive performance independent of content (Barlett, Vowels, Shanteau, Crow & Miller, 2009, 101), so those of us who work in liberal arts education should be open to the possibility that they can be productively integrated into the curriculum.