I admit without hesitation I am a huge fan of the Star Wars movies and their cinematographic mythology. Months before Star Wars Episode 3 was released in theaters, my (then) 7 year old son and I read the entire book (“Revenge of the Sith” by Matthew Stover) together at bedtime over a period of many weeks. Our imaginations were captivated and taken away, much as my own imagination was at age 7 when I first saw “Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope,” at a movie theater here in Lubbock, Texas. That was 1977, and no one had a home computer yet. I don’t even think game arcades were invented. My how times change. Unlike many social reactionaries and frustrated technocrats who survey our rapidly changing information environment, however, I see many silver linings to this brave new era in which we all live.

In viewing the opening flash animation for Lucas Arts’ new game, “Empire At War,” I am reminded of Marc Prensky’s writings and the presentation I heard him give at TCEA last month about gaming.

Today’s interactive games, like Empire at War, invite children of all ages (myself included) to enter an alluring world where:

  1. Reality is complex and decisions have tangible, measurable consequences.
  2. Rules and relationships are complex but discoverable through play and interaction.
  3. The stakes are high, and the outcome of a galactic conflict hangs in the balance based on my choices.
  4. The future is not predictable, but is certainly directable in part by the role I choose to play.

While these are arguably characteristics of many virtual worlds, wouldn’t you agree they can accurately describe the REAL world as well? The desire students have to play games like these is closely tied to their innate desire to ENGAGE IN ACTIVITIES THAT MATTER, a theme I took up at my own TCEA presentation on “Cultivating Digital Literacy Through Blogging and Podcasting.”

The opening flash animation for Empire at War includes the following captions, punctuated by moving Star Wars music and imagery:

The war for the Star Wars galaxy is at your command! Choose your side… Plan your mission… Prepare your forces… Are you ready for total control? Will you repeat Star Wars history? Or will you change it forever?

Whoa! I’m in, when do we start playing? 🙂 I have incidentally been very disappointed that LucasArts has not offered ports of its PC games to either Macintosh or Linux. Playing a game like Empire at War is the most persuasive reason I know of for having and running a Windows-based computer at home.

Compare the level of engagement, and the allure of the challenge, offered by a game like Empire at War to a typical lecture at the high school or college level. Is it any wonder teachers have trouble keeping the attention of digital natives under their instructional care? These dynamics make the need to engage students in interactive learning experiences even more apparent and pressing. (That need certainly pre-dates the Star Wars dynasty, however.)

Marc’s website Games 2 Train has a wealth of links, suggestions, and resources related to using gaming to engage digital natives. Any school pursuing a 1:1 learning initiative should pre-install appropriate games on the student laptops for them to play at appropriate times on their own. We KNOW many students have high levels of intrinsic motivation to play interactive computer games. We can’t make the entire school experience one extended Lucas Arts immersive, interactive experience, but there ARE many constructive lessons that can be learned within gaming environments. At a minimum, we should pre-load student laptops with free games we can safely wager they’ll be sure to try and play on their own.

As adults, I agree with Dan Pink in his book “A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age” that we need to be playing more games too like young people are. Play is one of the six essential skills Pink identifies as required for 21st century life success. Game on!

To learn more about the “Empire at War” game, in addition to visiting the game’s official website, you might read this recent CNN article, “‘The Force’ lives on in new ‘Star Wars’ game.” That’s where I learned about it first!

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4 Responses to Invitation to complex problem solving

  1. Raj Boora says:

    Hi Wes, if you are looking for another game that is a reason to own a Windows machine – check out Spore – http://spore.ea.com.

    BTW I saw the add for Empire at War the other night and I was thinking much the same thing – but I’m hoping that it hits the consoles as well – Mac gaming is still a non starter it seems.

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    Some day in the not too distant future I may use this line of reasoning with my wife to convince her to let us purchase an Xbox! Our gamecube is fun, but of course LucasArts does not release its titles for GameCube either….

    Thanks for the recommendation, Spore does look great!

  3. Raj Boora says:

    If you have the time, take a look at the Google Video for it – there are two one is 1h and the other is 35min – I’ve got the shorter one on my blog.

  4. Wes, you won’t believe this, but my son (6) and I have been watching the entire 6 Star Wars movies (we’re at Phantom Menance tonight), AND I was literally forced to get him Empire at War this weekend, along with the Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (we have the Sith one already).

    He loves playing these games and drives me nuts with requests for help. I believe in self-reliance, however, and encourage him to work it through on his own…2 minutes after I say that, he has a breakthrough and we move on to the next problem.

    How can tv or anything short of real life compare to constant problem-solving?

    Miguel Guhlin

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