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Funhouse Research

Video is fair game in Teachers College's newest research lab.

The newest research lab at Teachers College has two television monitors, several video game consoles, shelves of games and a sleek purple PC whose tower resembles the menacing creature from the "Alien" movies. There's also a room-wide mural of an eggplant farm swarming with characters from popular video games.

Backed by a $150,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation, the Educational Games Group: Play, Literacies, Avatars, Narrative and Technology Video Games Research Lab - better known as EGGPLANT-had its grand opening in late March. A reception dubbed the Tron Prom-a reference to the prescient 1982 movie about computer games-was attended by 60 TC faculty members and students. 

"Video games have become very prominent in our society," says John Black, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications and Education, who co-directs EGGPLANT with Professor Charles Kinzer, coordinator of the Programs in Communication, Computing and Technology in Education. "When a top video game is released, it makes more money than a top movie. We're looking at their impact on how people see the world, and also hoping to harness their technology for educational purposes."

Black, a cognitive psychologist and director of TC's Institute for Learning Technologies, became interested in video games three years ago when his younger daughter became an avid player of "The Sims," a game where players control the lives of characters in a virtual dollhouse. Since then, game studies have gained growing acceptance at universities nationwide through works such as What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, by education researcher James Gee of the University of Wisconsin. Many academics-Black included-deplore the violence and sexism of commerical video games and remain skeptical that games can improve learning. But Black believes more research could uncover the medium's potential.

"I think one can use this technology to create a game where you can transfer skills to a completely different context," he ays.

 Currently, three TC doctoral students-Gillian Andrews (who gave EGGPLANT its name) and Jessica Hammer, both of the communication and education department, and Zhou Zhou, in instructional technology and media-are using the lab to probe the popularity of the violent game "Grand Theft Auto." Their plan is to videotape adult volunteers playing the game at the lab ask them questions about their motivations, strategies and goals.

"We're not looking to use ‘Grand Theft Auto' in the classroom," Andrews  says, "but we do want to learn how the motivating elements, immersive qualities and instructional structures of games like these could be used in education-much in the way 'Sesame Street' has done great things for TV."

Published Monday, May. 2, 2005