Viewpoint: Online Courses as Video Games

By Dr. Rodney P. Riegle, Professor
Illinois State University

Online course offerings are becoming increasingly more common in education. Nearly three million U.S. students are currently taking university level courses online and more than half of all higher education institutions see online education as critical to their long-term strategy. The competition for online students will continue to escalate as more and more institutions realize that online education is a fast-growing, multi-billion dollar market.

Clearly, education is becoming a commodity and many educational institutions are looking to online education to improve their revenue stream. The competition for online students is bound to become more and more intense. The marketing of online courses, however, is still in its infancy. Courses designed like video games are one way to win this competition by appealing to the target demographic in a way that they embrace. A recent study found that 70 percent of U.S. college students play video games (32 percent even admit to playing video games during class without the knowledge of their instructors).

In addition to being one of the most popular video game genres (along with adventure and sports), RPGs are perhaps the most appropriate video game genre for educational purposes. RPG stands for Role-Playing Game. A role-playing game is a game in which each player takes the part of a character and participates in an adventure. The popularity of online role-playing games is staggering--there are currently more than 25 million people playing MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) such as The Sims Online, Runescape, City of Her'es, Dark Age of Camelot, Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Final Fantasy, EverQuest, Lineage, and Ragnarok.

Educational games are nothing new. A quick search of the U.S. Department of Education’s Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) database yielded over 15,000 results for the keyword games. Playing video games is also not new; it has now been more than 20 years since ATARI claimed its first addicts. The advantages of online educational video games include:
· multi-media sensory stimulation
· person-person (multi-player) and/or person-machine (single player) interaction
· asynchronous (players can play at any time and place) and/or real-time interaction
· 24-7 availability
· nearly infinite resources (the entire Internet)
· individualization (players can interact with learning materials at their own pace and in their own style)
· replayability (players can make mistakes and replay poorly understood situations as often as desired)
· instant and automated record-keeping, feedback, and diagnosis
· format familiarity (today's students are inveterate game players)

Because video games are still in their infancy both technically and conceptually, most are not educational. Do not be misled by this. Video games constitute a new and as yet poorly developed instructional form that holds great promise for both designers and players. The idea of using video games to teach is admittedly controversial. Some educators believe that academic content cannot be transmitted through video games. Others believe video games have no connection to the real world. Still others believe that video games are violent and encourage antisocial behavior. However, two bestselling video games, Civilization and SimCity, are already being used in college classrooms to teach history and urban planning respectively and the entire field of video gaming is beginning to gain academic credibility.

Unfortunately, most educators have little understanding of either technology or gaming while most technologists and gamers have no background in education. Thus, the conceptual obstacles are at least as profound as the technical ones. This is a common phenomenon during paradigm shifts. For example, the first movie makers placed cameras in the pit of a theater and filmed stage plays. Eventually, they realized that they were allowing the structures of the older art form to limit their use of the new technology. Then, and only then, were they able to develop new techniques and an entirely new art form. Predictably, a review of online courses reveals that almost all can be characterized as electronic versions of the old instructional paradigm limited primarily by the inability of their creators to throw off the mental shackles of the Industrial Age classroom.

Humor, mystery, adventure--these are essential characteristics of Information Age courses. In the not-too-distant future, it will be common practice for courses to be designed like RPG video games. In a global economy dominated by the video game generation, edutainment will inevitably supercede both education and entertainment. Some people believe that the merger of education and entertainment will diminish education. To the contrary, and perhaps more importantly, it will improve entertainment. Since typical students spend nearly as much time playing video games (10,000 hours by the time they graduate) as they do in class, this is an exceedingly important goal.

In the year 2000, I designed the world’s first online course (http://www.c'e.ilstu.edu/rpriegle/eaf228/) that was an educational RPG video game and since then more than 1,000 students have taken it. In the past, my course would perhaps be viewed as a mildly amusing course that had no real application to other settings. However, with the advent of the global Internet students anywhere in the world can now take my course and transfer the credit to their university. And you should note that I have had online students from every continent except Antarctica; all of whom generated credits for my university.

The moral is that video games are no longer just games. They are an important tool in the creation of effective learning environments and they are a crucial weapon in the inevitable online learning marketing war. The first battle for the future of online courses has already begun at EAF 228. The marketing war is about to escalate. Designing online courses like video games and utilizing video game marketing strategies (e.g., movie trailers, screen shots, etc.) would be a shrewd strategy for those institutions that are looking for ways to mount an effective marketing campaign.


Rodney P. Riegle, Ph.D. (rpriegle@ilstu.edu)will be presenting on Online RPCs (Role-Playing Courses): Instructional Design in the Information Age at the July 2005 Syllabus Conference in Los Angeles.

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