David Frederick Learning Lab Story

Faculty member David Frederick works in the Tesseract Lab on campus in the J.B Hunt building where he develops video game programming. With the help of other teachers and students, the Tesseract Lab works to advance game design in Northwest Arkansas.

While many college courses require textbook readings and back-to-back lectures, some UA professors have taken a non-traditional route and implemented unconventional learning methods into their classrooms. 

David Fredrick, an associate professor of classic studies and director of humanities, works to integrate video games inside the classroom alongside his team of interns from the Tesseract Center for Immersive Environments and Game Design.

Launching their first educational video game, Mythos Unbound, in 2015, the Tesseract Center has since released a variety of games geared toward educating, including learning languages, classical studies. Similarly, Fredrick’s video game Arkansas Stories of Captivity and Resistance strives to teach history in a new and engaging way.

“So far, our games have only been used at the university,” Fredrick said. “We would like to see them in public schools, and it’s just the question of trying to fit that in. Getting things into the public school curriculum is complicated, but I think Mornin' in Your Eyes is quite appropriate for that.” 

With pre-production set to finish this spring, Arkansas Stories teaches the intertwined histories of Japanese-American internment, African American peonage and Italian Prisoners of War in Southeast Arkansas during World War II.  

Theo Mellon, a senior, is part of the Arkansas Stories team and has been working as a Tesseract Center artist intern for three years. The video game is narrative based, allowing students to communicate with several characters in the game while exploring the history of the 1940s, he said. With four main characters from various backgrounds, Arkansas Stories offers diverse perspectives and experiences for the students to understand.

“(The characters) are under some form of discrimination and oppression and we’re trying to show how the nuances of that affect the story and the different perspectives of history,” Mellon said. “That history isn’t really taught in schools and those perspectives are really important and they bring a lot of nuance to why history looks the way it does.” 

While Mellon agrees that video game learning tools may not be accessible for all classrooms, he said they serve as innovative learning aids for students who do have access. Rather than relying on conceptual representations of history, like textbooks and articles, Arkansas Stories offer students visual representations of each character’s struggles and choices — which allows the student to see history through the lenses of those who experienced it, he said. 

While the common perception of video games is still held to be violent, the games at the Tesseract Center differ and are similar to those of smaller, indie-based game developers, Fredrick said. These games promote users to uncover various social injustices, history and resistances. 

“Those kinds of games are really good at teaching empathy,” Fredrick said. “Reading is an active thing, but it’s not as active as playing a video game where you have to make choices within a world and the choices seem to affect that world. It’s kind of personal in that way, like you are that character, you made those choices, and you can see their outcomes. It makes the learning part really stick.” 

Students enrolled in courses that utilize these learning-based games are not measured by points or how well they complete the game, but rather through assessments afterwards, Fredrick said. It varies from course to course, but many professors choose to give written assignments for students to reflect and evaluate their experiences. Several professors will also assign supplemental learning aids like article or textbook readings to reinforce the material learned in the video game. 

While some professors strive to provide innovative ways of learning through educational video games, several have found other creative ways to engage their students. 

UA professor Michele Johnson teaches a “History of Pop Culture” class that uses graphic novels like John Lewis’ March Trilogy as supplemental reading material. Alongside studying various graphic novels, Johnson’s students watch movies and listen to music. Johnson said while this is the first course she has used Lewis’ novels for, she strives to offer a variety of ways to engage with pop culture. 

“We need to step away from the idea that history is nothing more than names and dates and black and white text.” Johnson said. “History is a living breathing thing and it is being told in exciting formats. We no longer have to rely on a single textbook or type of source for students to learn.”

 

A previous version of this article included a misspelling of David Fredrick's name. It has since been updated to include the correct spelling. The Traveler strives for accuracy and clarity in all matters.

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