Using Games to Educate

In the last few years we’ve seen the Internet playing a larger and larger role in education. Everyone seems to expect a revolution in education within 20 years. It’s possible, although I don’t think it will come from the direction that everyone thinks it will (see my post on online education). I want to give my two cents about an ancillary approach: videogames. Games don’t have to teach the students anything. In fact, I think they are much more useful as vehicles for the education. Games provide a background, a context, for new knowledge. For example, playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution (play chapters of a game as homework instead of reading chapters of a book?) could help spark discussion about the current situation of computers, implants, artificial intelligence, politics, etc. The experiences within the game outside of the lesson help students stay interested and apply the knowledge, even if subconsciously, beyond the classroom.

I’m going to focus on two games: Kerbal Space Program and Minecraft. Prmrytchr has a whole blog on using Minecraft (as well as other games) in the classroom, so I’m going to focus on the technical aspects.

the KSP splash

Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is an indie game currently under development with an open alpha available for purchase. In the game, you run the space agency of a particularly derpy alien race in their Sol-like system. In sandbox mode, you can throw together rockets, probes, rovers, space stations, planes, and planetary bases from a wide assortment of parts. Then you launch your constructions and control them to the best of your abilities.

KSP Screenshot KSP Screenshot 2

While hard to grasp at first, the game is incredibly fun. You do need a rudimentary understanding of kinematics to play well. This is the first step in its ability to act as an educational tool. While you can strap an engine onto a fuel tank and try to fly it, you quickly realize that doing anything impressive — such as putting an object in orbit — requires a bit of education. While you could watch tutorials, you could also get a lesson about basic kinematics and orbital mechanics from a present teacher. There’s an opportunity for lessons on engineering, as well.

As students become more proficient, more complex opportunities open up to them. Orbital rendezvous and gravitational slingshots get more involved physically. Spacecraft design, between mass conservation, fuel-mass ratio, reaction thruster placement, and properties of engines, is a great opportunity for springboarding into other physics. Other elements of spacecraft design that aren’t simulated in KSP, such as heat management, enter the realm of thermodynamics. Ancillary topics that arise when discussing space exploration can involve relativity and electromagnetic waves.

minecraft splashMinecraft, on the other hand, is about as physically unrealistic as you can get. However, it provides an awesome way to teach logic and economics. Even vanilla Minecraft has a growing arsenal of parts which allow rudimentary (or not so rudimentary) automation. Redstone is a powerful tool for doing any sort of logical manipulation — or teaching it. Watching your toolbox of gates and mechanisms grow out of a few basic ground rules is amazing. Creative minds are pushed to imagining new ways of using redstone, pistons, minecarts, and all the other machines being added in. While I’m not a fan, mods like Technic or Tekkit expand the array of basic parts at your disposal.

Multiplayer in Minecraft is an interesting case study of economic theory. Because the system varies so much from the real world, it provides an outside perspective on traditional economic theory. As you teach the basics of microeconomics, you can analyze why Minecraft’s multiplayer economy and identify how to restrict it. The ultimate goal of the class could be to establish a working economic system on a Minecraft server (perhaps through plugins/mods?).

Redstone Schematic Redstone Screenshot

Whether or not any of these are good ideas, it illuminates how games don’t have to be the primary vehicle of learning to be a useful educational tool. Games can merely be a springboard, a point of reference from which lessons emerge. The game keeps the students interested and grounded in the topic, while providing a useful outlet and vector of fortification for the knowledge they are getting in class.


Pyramid Scheme

No, but seriously. I hear all this talk about economic growth being the key factor in recovering from the economic recession. But how can the economy constantly grow? Population isn’t increasing that much except in third-world countries, and we have pretty much tapped into all the natural resources available to us. How is a model of economics based off of growth remotely sustainable? Obviously I am no economist, but here is what I see: we have been building up a market economy and globalizing for the past two centuries. All of this growth and expansion has been based on the principle of exploiting other locations. We used other countries that had different supplies and demands as leverage to boost our own economy. With the exhaustion of new sources of raw materials (metals and lumber and oil are getting scarcer and scarcer) and the homogenization of the global market, how can we possibly hope to maintain this economic disparity which lets us grow. Now, I will admit that there are still developing nations and a growing global population. But what happens when the global population tops out at 10 billion (see below) and all regions reach a certain standard of living expectation?

If anybody is economist, could you please explain whether or not this model is unsustainable, and if so why we subscribe to it.

Power Down Day

Today was a lot of fun; I got to antagonize environmentalists! In coordination with student groups, my school sponsored a Power Down Day. The school turned off most of the lights in the school and encouraged people to cut back on use of electrical devices. As you can imagine, I immediately began trying to find a flaw with the idea. This is when I recalled a nifty economic theory (widely acceptable although hotly debated) called Jevons Paradox.

In economics, the Jevons paradox is the proposition that a technological advance which increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.

It was postulated by William Jevons in the 1800s after he observed that increased efficiency in coal-burning technology resulted in more coal usage, rather that less. This can be applied to any current technology, however. Take cars for instance. Although there are a lot of factors I am not taking into account, these are fairly indicative numbers. These graphs represent the Efficiency and the Consumption of fuel by passenger cars since 1960. Please note the scales of the horizontal axises.

Average MPG (image link broken)
Average fuel consumption (image link broken)
Data from

This is a great illustration of the Jevons Effect. Even though fuel efficiency has been increasing, fuel consumption has increased as well (after the initial leap in car technology). This goes against the first intuition. The same goes for lightbulbs. Lightbulbs used to be rather rare. In the current day, we have numerous lights not only in every room of every building, but also in cars, on pens, even on shoes. Because lights are cheaper, we use them for more things; or everything.

Now, Power Down Day was not flawed in itself. Although you can use Jevons Paradox to argue that initiatives to increase efficiency are actually hurting the environment more than helping, it doesn’t apply to situation where you are just not using power. Using less power doesn’t necessarily decrease energy prices like more efficient electronics would. However, the whole conservationist effort stems from the same force that pushes for more fuel efficient cars and bans on incandescent lightbulbs. For instance, someone thought it would be a good idea to get a bunch of those useless rubber bracelets made with “Power Down Day” on them. It probably took more energy to make 500 of those wristbands than was saved by “powering down”.

The energy saving effort doesn’t actually save much money, despite that being a major argument point. That only works if you stick with the scheme in the long run. In a gymnasium, for example, there are 3 fluorescent bulbs per panel and the panels might be arranged in a 6 by 6 square. Assuming a wattage of 10 Watts per bulb, thats almost a kilowatt. Over the course of a day, that will save somewhere on the order of $2. With a majority of lights extinguished, that number could be brought up to maybe $50 a day. Which is not bad, but if you are going to keep the lights turned out all the time (thus actually making a legitimate amount in energy savings), you could have saved even more money by never installing them in the first place!

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