Using Video Games in Immigrant Education and Learning

by Dasha Novak

(This is the third in a series of research projects being developed by Graduate Students at Emily Carr Institute.)

As we play we learn. The goal of my project is to provide new immigrants with the best advances in technology and education from the very beginning of their integration into the North American culture. The interactive nature of video games can offer new ways of learning skills so important for their daily navigation through their new environment.
Simulation games can be seen as interactive stories - stories are one of the most fundamental and powerful synthetic experiences available to us. Participation in these stories can change the learners’ relationship to the information by encouraging experimentation visualization and creativity. I will design a prototype of a 3D thematic video game that will address issues that affect immigrant youth and adults in a playful, engaging way. The video game will simulate real life situations within the context of North American culture and enable its users to practice and experience learning and role playing in a safe resourceful environment. The video game creation will draw on my ethnic, academic and artistic background. Through a personal experience of an immigrant, domestic violence survivor, and a single mother I have gained a solid understanding of the legal, cultural, economical and psychological impact immigration has on children and adults. My art practice explores the dynamics of culturally based learning and perception, politics of gender, identity, and isolation. As a first year graduate student at the Emily Carr Institute of Arts and Design I am hoping to expand my knowledge and understanding of visual perception and visual literacy.

The obstacles to negotiating unfamiliar social situations are major issue for immigrant families moving to the leading immigrant receiving nations today - the United States, Canada and Australia. The immigrant adults and children arriving at the doorsteps of a new culture face complex challenges such as language barriers, employment competition, cultural and social differences and a loss of the homeland; many immigrants find themselves marginalized and, for the large part, live with a sense of isolation.
From many perspectives, there is an overwhelming need to develop a more integrated approach to multilayered immigration issues. To address this need, the government immigration policies should lay out a more holistic path whereby today's learning centers can take advantage of information technology's potential. My contribution through this project will satisfy this need. Together with established cultural and social programs available, the integrated use of play and practice through my game will maximize the existing and potential skills of new immigrants. Failure to provide the new immigrants with the advances of today’s technology will perpetuate the process of marginalization of this particular social group and prolong its dependency on government support.

Scores of recent studies indicate that producing educational video games is a worthwhile activity. Indeed, it is a necessary progression if we are to reach current and future generations of new Canadians in ways that cater for their needs and expectations. Video games provide a complete, interactive virtual environment where ambient and direct information creates an immersive experience, sustaining interest in the game. It has been suggested by Marc Prensky that well designed video games incorporate as many as 36 important learning principles and have a capacity to deal with infinite amounts of content while affording different levels of challenge.
From my research, I will create a video game and disseminate it. Flexible and complex enough to cater for different learning styles, the simulation games encourage collaboration,
put the learner in the role of a decision maker and most importantly, they broaden learners’ exposure to different people, cultures and environments. Clark Aldrich, founder of SimuLearn Inc. claims that simulations will be “in widespread use by leading instructors within five years and will eventually change education as much as textbooks and motion pictures.��? Supported by other leaders in the industry such as Eren Rosenfeld, general manager of performance simulations for Accenture, Aldrich believes that “simulations are the trends, and we’re going to see a lot more over the next four or five years because inherently, they are the embodiment of the best way to teach.��?
I envision developing a video game that will simulate a story of a thirteen year old girl named Alice, who immigrates with her family from the Czech republic to Canada. I will create a virtual city that will be modeled after the city of Vancouver; the home of the new immigrant family will be in the Commercial drive area. I chose Commercial drive for its ability to create a strong sense of place and community for the eclectic cultural tapestry of people living in the area. The learner will tackle different levels of difficulty as Alice enters the streets of Commercial drive and orientates herself within the new cultural and physical landscape of an urban area. She will encounter language barriers, multiple identity issues as an adolescent female and as a person with a different background and values. She will also encounter ways of finding information and resources; learn skills such as getting around with transit, going to diverse collection of community services and businesses. This will provide the user with skills necessary for their navigation through daily life. Ultimately, it will aid them in dealing with the transformation of complex relationships within her family and new society; tackle issues such as racism, isolation, domestic violence. There will also be examples of typical Canadian fun activities such as playing ice hockey, hiking, soccer, lacrosse or kayaking. Within the context of this game, the learner - immigrant - will have a chance to interact with the new environment and to practice life skills in a safe and supportive surrounding. In the process of designing the video game I will use the technology of StarLogo TNG, a brand new simulation software that features new environments for rapid model building. I will include animated narrative vignettes (ANV), cartoon-like video narratives of hypothetical and reality-based stories involving teaching and learning. The models of scenes and characters will be imported into the game using VIRTOOLS developing engine.