Jim Mathews, educational director of a team of game designers and education researchers at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, gave a speech Monday night on how games can be used to increase empathy, raise awareness on important issues and leverage a child’s learning ability.

Mathews said computer simulations which force players to reflect on the impact of their choices began with the “Oregon Trail,” which taught players about ecological damage.

Though rudimentary, Mathews said the game allows players to hunt and kill more buffalo than they can carry with them on their wagons, which points toward the real-life ecological destruction which occurred during western expansion.

But Mathews criticized the game for not touching on how the western expansion affected Native Americans.

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“This game does not even come close to trying to think about how western expansion affected folks that already lived out west,” Mathews said.

Modern educational games are descendants of the “Oregon Trail,” but they depict an array of topics in more detail, and with better mechanics, Mathews said.

As an example, Mathews said “Against All Odds,” a game developed by the United Nations Refugee Agency, places the player in the role of a refugee as they escape war and attempt to cross the border into another country, Mathews said.

With similar mechanics but with a different educational purpose, Mathews said the Annenberg Center at the University of Southern California developed a top-down game called “Redistricting,” which tasks the player with winning an election by redrawing voting zones.

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“Important in these times, we want young people to learn about redistricting, and we want not only to get them to learn about it, but we want to move them from that to being activists on redistricting,” Mathews said.

Mathews said people have an “ecology of knowledge” on issues, and games can add to that ecology just as documentaries have supplemented the knowledge gained from textbooks.

A book like “Guns, Germs and Steel,” for instance, presents a historical argument for the development of societies but is often too difficult or unpalatable to attract younger students, while a game like “Civilization V,” Mathews offered as contrast, reflects the ideas of the book in a rich and responsive game system and can better leverage the learning capacities of children.

“Not a lot of middle schoolers, if I want to get them to start thinking more deeply about civilization, are going to read [Guns, Germs and Steel],” Mathews said. “One argument for games is to say it is an entry point for deeper conversations.”

As the cost of producing games decreases, independent developers are treading new ground and experimenting how games can educate players through new experiences, Mathews said.

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Mathews gave “6×9,” a virtual reality game developed by the Guardian, as an example of what he calls “designed experiences.” The game places the player in the six-foot-by-nine-foot quarters of solitary confinement and depicts the experiences of a prisoner, Mathews said, which can help the player to better understand the realities of prison life.

“Autism Simulator,” as another example, depicts the auditory and visual hypersensitivity of an autistic child, Mathews said.

“If I don’t have autism, is there a way for me to try to begin to understand what it is like to have autism? And is there a place for games in that world?” Mathews asked.

Mathews said he and his team are currently working on a game about the gene editing technology CRISPR and the ethical decisions involved with gene manipulation.

Mathews said he came to study and develop educational games not because he was passionate about gaming, but because games offered a novel and exciting way to educate and improve communities.

“I would be thoroughly unhappy if kids only played video games, it would be a terrible world,” Mathews said. “But there’s something — maybe — that we can leverage in order to get people to care about stuff that they otherwise wouldn’t.”