2011-01-20 / Local & State

PA College Professor Uses Games To Teach Strategy

By Sean McCracken

ERIE, Pa. (AP) – A room full of students playing games isn’t usually the image you conjure up when you think of success in higher education.

But that’s exactly what Kris Wheaton, a professor of intelligence studies at Mercyhurst College, wants to see.

Wheaton has embraced what’s called “game-based learning’’ in his graduate level strategic intelligence course for the past two years.

“I think the students expected it to be more fun than it was,’’ Wheaton said. “But since it began I can see an obvious increase in the quality of work.’’

The course is the capstone for Mercyhurst’s applied intelligence master’s program, graduates of which go on to fields such as Homeland Security.

Students are graded on how well they learn theories behind strategy and not how well they do in games.

Second-year applied intelligence graduate student Regis Mullen said this approach to teaching allows students to take a new approach to learning.

“Students generally tailor their learning to getting a good grade,’’ Mullen said. “But this has to do more with reflecting on what you’ve done, and it sticks a lot better.’’

Most of the games in Wheaton’s course are video games, but they aren’t all just the most popular strategy games.

Wheaton uses an online game called Auditorium, where the player bends beams of light to solve puzzles and create music. The game is simple in its execution, but encourages players to think of multiple answers to the same problem.

“The biggest problem for game-based learning is that not everyone likes the same kind of game,’’ Wheaton said. “Imagine a fifth-grade math game.

“Cowboy math is going to appeal to one demographic, and Barbie math is going to appeal to a completely different demographic. But the math is exactly the same.’’

Wheaton overcame that obstacle by incorporating a wide array of games. Students in his course are challenged by simple games like Go, an ancient Asian board game, and more complicated games like DMZ: The Next Korean War.

DMZ is a board game designed to simulate a war pitting North Korea against South Korea and the United States. Wheaton said the game gives students a better understanding of the objectives of each side and Korean geography.

“This helps them with big-picture strategy and the realism of strategic thinking,’’ Wheaton said.

That sort of complementary learning isn’t uncommon in the class’ gamebased learning, said secondyear applied intelligence graduate student Nimalan Paul.

“ I’ve learned a lot of things unconsciously,’’ Paul said. “We had a stock market game, and after we started that I began reading the news every day.’’

“It gives them the opportunity to fail,’’ Wheaton said. “I always tell my students that failure isn’t where you learn. You learn in the reflection after failing.’’

To that end, students talk face to face and on a discussion board about why they took certain strategies in games and what they expect to happen. Every Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m., students in the class gather together in Wheaton’s “game lab’’ to try their hand at new strategies.

Kate Mills, a graduate student, said that sort of trial and- error learning is a rare opportunity to put theory in practice.

“It allows you to broaden your horizons,’’ said Mills. “It allowed me to be more of a risk taker than I normally would.’’

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