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Simulation games: can gaming break barriers to university?

Does gaming hold the key to university outreach and recruitment? Liam Arnull thinks so.
This article is more than 4 years old

Liam Arnull is QTaster Coordinator at Queen Mary University of London

Since the dawn of 2D computer graphics, visual simulations of everything under the sun have been attempted and higher education is no exception.

From individual simulation games like The Sims to logistical games like Cities: Skylines, imaginative exploration of university has become a significant part of the gaming world.

Dream a little dream

If you’ve ever wondered how a university on a mountain with public cable cars would work, pondered what studying robotics might be like, or felt like you could schedule classes just that little bit more effectively – there’s a simulation for you.

These are the sorts of things that inspire developers to create games that can begin to answer the “what if” questions. Humans are by nature inquisitive and are attracted to the many corners of the unknown. Crucially, though, these games create an explorative platform environment that removes real life risks, so that the unknown can be explored on our own terms – rather than left for chance.

For impactful life decisions like university, where at least three years of your life will be taken over by examinations and coursework, exploring this is an obvious train of thought. From wondering what classes will be like in the weeks leading up to your first day, to picturing what your new room will look like, are all scenarios that roll around in the mind.

The Sims series first allowed us to play this out in The Sims 2 Expansion Pack: University and now the newly released The Sims 4 Expansion Pack: Discover University. The essential premise of The Sims is to simulate everyday life throughout a sandbox world, a world where meaning and goals are derived from the player.

Being exposed to this kind of decision making processes at a young age not only prepares people for the choices they might have to make in the future, but it normalises the process of going to and graduating from higher education.

Getting under the hood

Often, simulating just the front-of-house experience is not enough for human curiosity. Understanding the structure and workings of an organisation is equally as important. Cities: Skylines, a city building game that focuses on in-depth factors from water coverage to manipulating road junctions, holds high levels of simulating power over your decisions for a city.

Building on this as Downloadable Content (DLC) upon the base game, Cities: Skylines – Campus gives players the tools to not only build their own community college or university, (from the trees that surround it to the layout of campus roads) but it also gives players incredible tools to structure the social layout within and outside the university. Free higher education? Paid tuition? Free public transport to sports games? All sorts of factors allow participants to manipulate and play with ideas to understand their strengths and subsequent consequences.

Being the first in your family or amongst a group of friends whose goals are neutral or negative towards higher education, it can be difficult to express and develop your own understanding of what going to university will entail.

From passive to active

Gaming is a unique form of storytelling where the player is often framed as an active participant – or even developer of the storyline, compared to passive methods through reading or listening to the radio. This active playing of the storyline is further put into uniqueness by its ability to remove us from real-life pressure and provide that reduced risk environment to explore our own desires and dreams.

In terms of barriers to higher education, we can see that limited time to engage with opportunities and logistical difficulties of higher education events are key issues for the journey from A Levels to undergraduate degree. As with most technology, gaming helps shrink our world and gives people access to situations that might not be possible otherwise. Giving people a chance outside of the limited time of school and administrative resources to delve into their questions around education beyond their secondary school.

Gamification, the process of turning an ordinary task into something with game-like elements such as playfulness and rules of play, is often felt as condescending – that somehow the activity was not possible for a particular person so therefore it is boiled down into something “fun” to ensure their engagement. But gamification often involves increasing complexity and decision making as the user is transformed from a passive to an active agent. If done with thought and time, gamification transforms uninteresting processes into something productive with higher levels of engagement – increasing the likelihood of achieving whatever objects are set.

Gaming isn’t without its drawbacks. The expense of hardware and software for gaming is a sticking point for the equity of opportunity. Other issues of addiction, online abuse and people removing themselves from reality are all key issues to be aware of. But with the rise of ever cheaper personal computers, mobile gaming and the expansive way virtual reality plays in all of our lives, these risks might be worth approaching and overcoming to increase the spaces people can approach university within.

Exploring these virtual simulations should by no means replace real life outreach and engagement. What they do offer, though, is a way to reach student populations who might not have engaged with higher education or their circumstances make such engagement difficult.

A companion tool to breaking barriers, simulation games around higher education are an ever developing genre of the gaming world that is set to keep asking ever more complex “what if” questions around the world of higher education. So watch this space and maybe have a go at exploring it yourself, who knows what you will create and discover.

One response to “Simulation games: can gaming break barriers to university?

  1. I’m really fascinated by the possibilities offered by gamification, and frustrated at how reluctant my colleagues are even to take it seriously. I feel quite inspired by this blog… and don’t quite know what to do with my inspiration!

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