If you’re wondering about the “doktorfrag” in my URL and Twitter handle, there’s a story about that. When I went back to get my second master’s degree in Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences, one of the summer jobs I had was working on a technology support team at Utah State University. I spent my days crawling around on the floor in people’s offices to get to data jacks behind their desks, installing software on point of sale computers, pulling Cat 6 Ethernet cable at construction sites, and swapping out memory cards and hard drives around campus. Most of the people on the team were undergraduates and a lot younger than me, so naturally I was surprised when one day, after work, they invited me to a LAN party they were having that evening.
“What’s a LAN party?” I asked. “Oh,” one of them responded, “we just connect our computers and play a video game together.” Now, you will need to understand that I used a typewriter when I was a first-year undergraduate student. And the last video game I can remember playing was River Raid on my Atari 5200. The idea of hooking a bunch of computers up to play a video game just didn’t seem to be all that appealing to me.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of being a good co-worker and trying to be a bit open-minded, I went to the party anyway. It was a decision that, looking back on it now, changed how I looked at technology and provided me with insights on how it could be used in education. That evening we played a new game that had just come out, Half-Life 2, in multiplayer mode. Things happened so quickly in the game, which seemed almost real, and learning to play the game went hand-in-hand with navigating and interacting with its virtual 3D spaces. It was a confusing and exhilarating experience.
I kept thinking about the game long after the computer was turned off. With some help from the other students on the technology support team, I eventually built my own “gaming rig,” a specialized computer with high-end hardware and overclocked settings that could handle the graphic-intensive requirements of video games. I also bought my own video game at the local food and drug store for $49.95, a futuristic first-person shooter called Battlefield 2142. I played that game in off-line training mode for several weeks until I finally scraped enough courage together to go up against other seasoned gamers on the online servers.
I decided that I needed a gaming handle that told other gamers a little about who I was. I decided on “Doktor_Frag” as “Doktor” would hint that I have a PhD in German Studies and “Frag” would, well, hopefully give the impression of intimidating lethality. I’m not sure that this handle had the intended effect on other players, although I would like to think that I did become a better player over time.
Repeated practice did, however, lead me to a valuable insight. One day, when I was being inserted into the game, I suddenly had the idea that – were this virtual environment suddenly to become real – I would know exactly what to, when to do it, and how to work with others to get it done. And then, as I explain in the video below, I connected this insight to what I did in the classroom: “Wouldn’t it be cool,” I thought, “if students could have a similar experience that would prepare them for going to Germany?”
This idea of a game that would teach students about the German language and culture in a 3D immersive environment stuck with me through my master’s program. In a way, the idea even helped to shape the program for me as it led me to take courses in instructional simulations, problem-based learning, and digital game-based learning. I even taught myself 3D modeling and texturing in Blender on the side and tried my hand at OGRE 3D to create a game prototype. It wasn’t until Unity came on the market in 2005, however, that developing the game finally became a reality for me. After about one-and-a-half years of 3D model creation, game programming, frustration, debugging, and developing instructional materials, I finally was able to release a game prototype. And a research experiment I conducted on the game (The story in the mind: The effect of 3D gameplay on the structuring of written L2 narratives. ReCall Journal: The Journal of the European Association for Computer Assisted Language Learning, 27(1), 1-17) showed that students did indeed learn from it.
So what have I learned through this whole process? For starters, I learned that excellent ideas can be found in unexpected and initially unattractive places. I also discovered that technology allows people to come together in interesting and productive new ways, such as interdisciplinary teams that work across departmental and institutional borders to produce a 3D game. I repeatedly found that technology forces me to ask exciting “what if” questions, the answers for which were always unexpected and revelatory. Technology, I realized, enables new modes of learning that required me to rethink and reconfigure my familiar instructional strategies, such as structuring a second language curriculum around the activity systems of a 3D game instead of a textbook. These insights can be uncomfortable, but I think meaningful growth causes this type of discomfort. Looking back now at my involvement with technology, it seems to me that technology is really a catalyst for bigger and more important things that happen to and among people: New ways of communication, collaboration, disruption, investigation, instruction, reflection, and innovation. This, I think, is truly exciting.
(Screenshot by David Neville /Destruction of the reactor core onboard the PAC Titan in Battlefield 2142)