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Video games in the classroom

Interactive and immersive games can serve as teaching aids

Somewhere on the southern coast of Brazil 3,000 years in the past, a young indigenous man is preparing for the funeral of an elderly woman from his community. He needs to collect a stone artifact shaped like a fish, a funeral shroud, fruits, and wood for the woman’s burial in a shell midden—a mound of mollusc shells, fish remains, and other organic material that can reach up to 30 meters (m) high.

The mission is part of the free video game Sambaquis – Uma história antes do Brasil (Shell middens – A history before Brazil), developed by the Interactive Archeology and Electronic Simulations (ARISE) research group at the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (MAE) of the University of São Paulo (USP), in partnership with the University of Southern Santa Catarina (UNISUL). The mobile version was released in August 2021.

“We chose the funeral of an old woman as the main plot because based on research by MAE, this is what calls most attention to how ancient peoples used these shell mounds,” says Alex da Silva Martire, an archaeologist and coordinator of ARISE’s game. “The items that appear in the game, such as the fish artifact that the woman will be buried with, are reproductions of objects found during archaeological excavations. Scientific evidence serves as the basis for the food, tools, and rituals that guide the narrative.”

Archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, immunologists, and researchers in other fields have used digital games to interactively disseminate information and research, with some poetic license. The games portray scenarios involving three-dimensional historical artifacts, with the real voices of indigenous people telling traditional stories, allowing players to explore ancient Roman houses or to take on the role of an epidemiologist investigating the symptoms of neglected diseases. With good pedagogical planning and specific training for teachers when needed, they can be useful tools in the classroom—if a school’s technological infrastructure is good enough.

In Sambaquis, a didactic guide provides information about the research behind the game, about how archaeologists work and suggested topics for students to explore, such as the environment the midden-building people lived in and the importance of preserving these archaeological sites, which are largely concentrated in the South. The plot allows students to delve into the daily lives of these pre-Columbian peoples.

Martire created 3D models of real artifacts and programmed the game on the Unity platform, which was used to build most of the games that appear in this report. The São Paulo State Education Department recommended the game for the first two months of the 6th year in student and teacher handbooks.

Gameplay from Guardians of the Forest Guardians of the Forest Gamebook: players use their memory, planning, and sustained attention to help Lyu find her parentsGameplay from Guardians of the Forest

“Tools like these can help students develop key skills, such as attention, interaction, memory, logical reasoning, and others. They allow them to playfully contrast their lived experiences with the historical period in which the game is set,” says Priscila Lourenço Soares Santos, a history curriculum technician at the São Paulo State Education Department. According to Santos, the use of video games is a way of modernizing the traditional teaching model. The Brazilian House of Representatives is currently debating a bill that establishes a National Policy to Stimulate the Use of Digital Games in Basic Education (PNJE), which aims to improve learning through this approach.

Another game recommended by the São Paulo Education Department that gives an insight into the past is The Last Banquet in Herculaneum, in which the player takes control of Septimius, a slave who lives in a city near Pompeii in Ancient Rome. His mission is to organize a feast to celebrate Vulcanalia, a festival dedicated to the Roman god of fire and the forge, Vulcan. The game begins on August 23 in the year 79 AD—as the player leaves his master’s house with a list of tasks to complete, he feels an earthquake. These tremors occur throughout the story, forewarning of the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius.

“Each scenario in the game corresponds to an archaeological aspect of Roman life that the teacher can explore,” says Alessandro Gregori, a historian studying a doctorate at USP’s School of Education who helped develop The Last Banquet. The game’s environments were based on studies by the university’s Laboratory Provincial Roman Archeology (LARP), which created the game and has links to the MAE. The game’s didactic guide suggests working on the specific aspect of each scenario.

For his master’s degree at LARP, Gregori adapted the religious practices of the ancient Romans to the narrative. “It was a challenge: how do you translate this anthropological sentiment of Roman religiosity, based on exchanging favors with the gods, into the digital world?” says the historian. The answer was to include a quest in which the player has to help the local people make offerings of fruits, wines, or terracotta objects.

As a high school history teacher, Gregori uses the game in his classes on Ancient Rome, with an activity plan that involves students playing and observing certain elements for discussion. For example, despite being a slave, Septimius can visit the city’s hot springs—this is one of his missions in the game. This was only possible because he had a superior status: he was responsible for managing his master’s house. “It’s a good way of discussing slavery in the Roman world, which was not linked to race,” he says. For him, games are didactic resources that only work well with good planning and monitoring by teachers. “You can’t just sit students in front of a tablet or cell phone and tell them to play. Despite allowing them to immerse themselves in history, it is the educator’s input that makes the game educational,” he explains.

Gameplay from Huni kuin: the ways of the boa constrictor / Beya Xinã Huni Kuin – The ways of the boa constrictor: developed together with indigenous people from Acre, the player goes on adventures based on traditional storiesGameplay from Huni kuin: the ways of the boa constrictor / Beya Xinã

This intersection between video games and learning has been studied by Brazilian researchers in the fields of education, communication, computing, design, and psychology since the early 2000s at least. There is no consensus on the best term to use: educational games, serious games, games for educational purposes, or game-based learning. According to the second census of the Brazilian digital games industry, published in 2018 and funded by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture, the number of educational games produced in the country was greater than the number of entertainment games. The educational games category covers all those that are designed for more than just having fun. They include games for use in schools, as well as training in defense, health care, management processes, and others. Between 2016 and 2017, the 227 companies that responded to the survey developed a total of 1,718 games, 874 of which were educational, 785 for entertainment, and 59 of other types.

According to the Brazilian Association for the Development of Electronic Games (ABRAGAMES), this is the most recent survey on the number of games developed in Brazil and their revenue. However, the association highlighted research released at Brazil’s Independent Games Festival in May 2021 by the company Newzoo as a good indicator of the current landscape: the games market was worth US$2.3 billion in 2021, a 5.1% increase in annual revenue. Mobile games (for cell phones and tablets) account for 47% of the market. ABRAGAMES also says there is no survey of games produced in the academic sphere, but the association is beginning a study in the first half of 2022—which is expected to become recurrent—on games development in the country.

“In the last 20 years, there has been a growth among research groups in Brazil that not only look at the function of digital games in the learning process, but also develop these games,” says Lynn Alves, a pedagogue from the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) and head of the university’s Virtual Communities research network, which links groups studying video games and education at the Federal Institute of Bahia, the Federal University of Alagoas (UFAL), and the State University of Bahia (UNEB). In almost two decades, Virtual Communities has produced 13 educational games for schools and businesses. Alves has helped organize the Seminar for Electronic Games, Education, and Communication (SJEEC) since 2007.

“These narratives spark the interest of children and adolescents, who are already used to playing games. When they play, they often don’t even realize that they’re developing cognitive and social skills,” says Alves, editor of the book Jogos digitais e aprendizagem – Fundamentos para uma prática baseada em evidências (Digital games and learning – Foundations for evidence-based practice; Papirus, 2016), a collection of articles by Brazilian, Portuguese, and Spanish researchers. She believes games developed for educational purposes need above all to be fun.

Alves suggests that if educational games focus only on the concept being taught, students may be uninterested. This is the argument she presented in an article published in the scientific journal Obra Digital in 2020, with the results of an online questionnaire answered by 86 undergraduate and graduate students studying games and digital technologies in Brazil. She says games with educational purposes can and should take inspiration from games made for entertainment by major franchises, with a plot, a set of rules, and fun and interesting characters. “These commercial games can also be used in the classroom,” she suggests.

“The rules of educational games need to express meaning, be playful, and lead the player to a certain behavior. Games are a space for learning and socializing, and the player needs to feel that they are having an impact on it,” says Marcelo de Vasconcellos, a researcher from the Center for Technological Development in Health (CDTS) at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) and coauthor of the book O jogo como prática de saúde (Games as a health practice; SciELO, FIOCRUZ, 2018). Since 2009, he has been studying the use of digital and analog games for communication and health.

Gameplay from Vacc – O jogo das vacinas | Fiocraft presentation video on YouTube Fiocraft (left) and Vacc – O jogo das vacinas (right): information to help fight COVID-19 is shared in the form of gamesGameplay from Vacc – O jogo das vacinas | Fiocraft presentation video on YouTube

Vasconcellos believes that one of the main characteristics these games need is procedural rhetoric: expressing meaning through rules and processes, which makes learning intuitive and integral in the game. When presenting educational content, showing text on the screen in the middle of a level is not enough. Concepts need to emerge through challenges and interaction. This is one of the conclusions Vasconcellos presents in an article he published in the scientific journal Informática na Educação: teoria & prática in 2017.

He is one of the organizers of the Brazilian Symposium on Digital Entertainment and Games (SBGames), an annual academic event, part of which focuses on education, and of this year’s Digital Games Research Association (DIGRA) conference, which will be held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in April. The association, created in 2003, is composed of researchers from several countries who study video games. With branches in countries such as Australia, the UK, Spain, Israel, India, and others, Brazil joined the association in 2021. “On the international scene, the field of electronic game studies has also gained strength since the turn of the millennium,” says the visual programmer.

In a 2014 survey of 649 elementary school teachers asked about using digital games as a teaching aid in the USA, 74% said they use them in class. Four out of five reported that their students primarily played educational games, with just 5% using more commercial games. Eight percent of them mainly use a hybrid of both options: entertainment games that have been adapted for educational use. The research was conducted by nongovernmental organization the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The forest as a backdrop
Stella Santana, an elementary school teacher at Sebastiana Silveira Pinto School in Uberlândia, Minas Gerais, chose to use digital games as a way of discussing indigenous cultures and diversity in Brazil with her class. In September 2021, she carried out an experimental project called “Digital game, real culture” with three students aged 9 to 10 years old. The project was awarded first place in the Elementary School 1 and Popular Vote categories at the 2021 Ciência Viva (Live Science) fair held by the Federal University of Uberlândia in November.

One of the activities she implemented was use of the game Huni Kuin – The ways of the boa constrictor with her students over a two-month period. In the game—whose 2D visuals are reminiscent of the classic platform games of the 1990s—five traditional stories of the Huni Kuin people serve as the basis for the adventures of two young indigenous people. They rely on the help of their ancestors and interact with animals, plants, spirits, and other invisible beings in the forest. Launched in 2016, it won in the games category at the 2020 comKids Interativo Festival, its fifth award.

The plot was developed in collaboration with 30 residents of the Huni Kuin Indigenous Reservation in Rio Jordão, Acre, under the supervision of Guilherme Meneses, an anthropologist from the nongovernmental organization Associação Povos da Terra (“People of the Earth Association,” APOTI). He spent four months with the indigenous people, heading creative workshops and recording the sounds of the forest and the narration of the stories by the Huni Kuin themselves in the Kashinawa language. Some of these recordings appear in the game, and full videos of the recording sessions and behind the scenes at the workshops are available on the website. “One of the aims was to address colonization for rubber tapping. But during the workshops, the Huni Kuin decided the game should be about their traditional stories, which address the origin of things,” he says.

Santana hosted an online chat between Meneses and her students. “Guilherme told us that the dream of one of the Huni Kuin spiritual leaders was to share their culture with other peoples. This game does just that,” she says. She reiterates, however, that many public schools do not have the infrastructure needed for this type of teaching material. “A certain level of investment is needed: training in new technologies for teachers, good computer equipment, and internet access. At my school, it took me two days just to download the game on three computers.”

Gameplay from Sambaquis – uma história antes do Brasil Sambaquis – uma história antes do Brasil: players perform tasks in an environment recreated from archaeological studiesGameplay from Sambaquis – uma história antes do Brasil

The Amazon rainforest is also the setting for Guardians of the Forest Gamebook, a mobile game for Android, aimed at children aged 8 to 12. The plot is centered on a girl called Lyu who gets separated from her parents during an expedition and is helped by characters from Brazilian folklore, such as Aram the Curupira, Saci Pererê, and Luno the werewolf. The player controls Lyu, who works together with the characters to protect the forest from Aragon, a company that wants to devastate it.

“We created a hybrid of a game and a book, with the game being the main element. With this approach, we sought to stimulate the player’s so-called executive functions, such as their memory, planning, and sustained attention. It is recommended for use both in schools, with several minigames included, and in clinical spaces for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” explains Lynn Alves, coordinator of Guardians, developed by the Virtual Communities division at UNEB and UFBA. A set of pedagogical guidelines for educators can also be downloaded with the game.

Mathematics and health games
What does science fiction have to do with math? A lot, according to the PC game D.O.M, which was also coordinated by Alves and developed by the Virtual Communities division at UNEB. The player controls G.U.I, a child whose spaceship was hit by an asteroid while on space vacation with his family. After crashing on an unknown planet, he needs to find parts for the ship to help his parents and get back home. The pedagogical aim to teach first-year high school students about the concept of quadratic functions while they play, allowing them to recognize mathematics in a vast range of activities, from studying celestial bodies to everyday tasks. Guidelines are available to teachers to help them use the game in the classroom.

The healthcare industry can also benefit from the immersion offered by digital games. The PC game Negligência Mortal (Deadly negligence), released by the Interactive Science Center (EIC) at USP’s São Carlos Institute of Physics in January 2021, was designed to serve this market. In the game, a respected epidemiologist called Odete is urgently called upon by the federal government to help with a mission: to identify the disease contracted by a journalist making a documentary about Brazilian biomes. Odete has to retrace the path taken by the journalist, taking note of the symptoms experienced by residents in the riverside and rural areas she visits. The game, aimed at elementary and high school students, addresses four neglected diseases in the country: schistosomiasis, malaria, Chagas disease, and leishmaniasis.

The chosen diseases are related to research by the Center for Research and Innovation in Biodiversity and Drug Discovery (CIBFAR), to which the EIC is linked. CIBFAR is one of the Research, Innovation, and Dissemination Centers (RIDC) funded by FAPESP. “We tried to create a game that players could get involved in. The students need to interact with the minigames and with the characters, to gather information and unravel the mystery. This gameplay is more interesting than something static like a simple image and text,” says biophysicist Leila Maria Beltramini, coordinator of the EIC and the game.

There are more than 30 games available on the EIC website, all free, and some developed for mobile devices running Android. The initiative was started in response to demands from teachers who attend the center for training and lectures. As might be expected, the COVID-19 pandemic has also become the subject of a game. “I was frustrated to see so much false information circulating about the pandemic and vaccination,” says Helder Nakaya, an immunologist and researcher at the Scientific Platform Pasteur-USP and Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in São Paulo. “But I didn’t want to make another video or write another article when so many already exist.” Instead, together with a team from the Todos pelas Vacinas (“All for vaccines”) movement and researchers from the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), he created Vacc: O jogo das vacinas (The vaccine game), available free for PC and cell phones or tablets running Android.

Players control a character called Maria Gotinha, whose job is to vaccinate the population. She uses a giant syringe with to shoot people with the vaccine. Behind the simple mechanics are a number of key concepts, such as the importance of social distancing—in the game’s first level, people who stay indoors are less likely to be infected by the virus. Later, people walking among fake news scattered on the ground start to move faster, becoming more difficult to vaccinate. To show how these concepts appear in the game, he posted a video on YouTube for teachers who want to use the game in the classroom.

Flávia Ferrari, a biology teacher at the Bradesco Foundation in São Paulo and one of the founders of Todos pelas Vacinas, used the game with students aged between 11 and 15. She made it into an event, asking her students to play the game, think about its concepts, and discuss their thoughts in the next class. “They got excited. Some talked about their younger sibling, who had been given a different vaccine for their second dose. It was a great opportunity to talk about vaccine resistance and immunization campaigns against meningitis and HPV,” she says.

In Fiocraft, released by the Games and Health Center at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ) in May 2021, researchers also shared information about COVID-19 in the form of a virtual exhibition. The software is not a game, but a map featuring a replica of the foundation’s historic castle that can be visited within Minecraft java edition, a Microsoft game available for PC.

One of the challenges we faced while developing the map was to recreate the historical setting. “We had to make some adaptations to allow the player to walk around the castle. But anyone who works with educational games understands the need for poetic license—we can’t make an exact replica of the real world. It’s important to preserve the fun of the game,” explains Marcelo de Vasconcellos, coordinator of Fiocraft. Other games developed by FIOCRUZ are available on its website.

Scientific articles
SANTOS, W. S. & ALVES, L. R. G. Jogos digitais educacionais: Tensionamentos no processo de produção. Obra Digital. No. 18, pp. 13–24. Aug. 2020.
VASCONCELLOS, M. S. et. al. As várias faces dos jogos digitais na educação. Informática na Educação: teoria e prática. Vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 203–18. Aug. 2017.