Saturday, April 25, 2015

Using video games to enhance learning

Last week our 6th grade students were learning about Gettysburg in anticipation of their trip this week. Each year since 2002, our 6th grade takes an all-day trip to this historic battlefield to learn about that bloody day.

I'll admit that I have always had an interest in both the Civil War and WWII. I'm also an avid gamer. A few weeks ago, I came across a game called Ultimate General. This game started as a mod for the Total War game series and was so popular it evolved into a full fledged game of its own. I knew this would be a perfect learning tool for our students.

I purchased the game on Steam then loaded it up on my Surface Pro 3. The Surface Pro works well with this lesson using the pen. Armed with the game and clips from the movie Gettysburg, I entered both sixth grade classes that week. As soon as students saw I had a Steam shortcut on my desktop they were immediately interested. "Woah! You have Steam?" Immediately, I had their attention. I then loaded up the game. I had chosen two specific skirmishes at Gettysburg to show them, Little Round Top which involved the 20th Maine and Pickett's Charge. It is one thing to see the battlefield in person, but when students are shown clips of professional or Hollywood reenactments it puts it into better perspective. For instance, when most students stand on top of LIttle Round Top, they'll just see a "hill." However, when I show them the clips of the Confederates trying to run UP that steep hill with full gear and bullets flying by them, it puts things into perspective. I wanted to add to that perspective by showing them this game.
I loaded up the mission for the skirmish at Little Round Top first. The one aspect I really love about this game is its visual style. The entire "battlefield" is actually a paper map. The edges of the map in the game show actual edges of a map and the table it sits on. The other MAJOR visual significance to this game is the wonderfully detailed maps with labels of locations overlaid. So now when I zoom around the map to show students different areas of engagement, they can clearly see which section of the battle this is taking place.

As soon as the mission started and troops began firing at each other, the students were "oohing and ahhing." Being from NJ, I chose the Union side. Now, I didn't just load this up to show them little digital soldiers firing each other. I started up the mission and let it play out for a few minutes, and students watched as brigades started to move into formation and the Confederates started to advance. While the troops on screen moved around, myself and the primary teacher were explaining what was happening and why. We started to ask students questions about the terrain and troop movements. "Why would the Round Tops be important?" "Why would advancing your entire brigade here be a good or bad idea?" Another great feature of this game is by hitting the M key on the keyboard, I can turn on the elevation display. This allows students to see that the battlefield was not all flat and how difficult it was to move from one area of town to the other quickly.

We also discussed tactics of troops and why they would want to move to certain areas, and what would happen. Another unique feature of this game which actually lends itself nicely to the touch feature of the Surface is movement. In most RTS games, you need to move units in a straight line however we all know that is not how war is fought nor how troops move in real life. Ultimate General is the first game (to my knowledge) that lets you draw how you'd like your troops to move. So now for the first time you can truly flank an enemy. When clicking on individual brigades, you can also see their "line of sight", shown below by the dark and light patches on the map. As you click on different brigades sections of the map will darken based on what those troops can actually physically see.

This game truly immersed our students and I was told by the teachers who took the students on the trip that they were more engaged while there and could answer more questions than ever before. The game and movie clips only played a small part in that increased immersiveness but I believe that any increase is definitely worth exploring.

This game is also available for the iPad and is currently 50% off for PC and Mac via Steam.