Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Honors Course Using StarCraft Is for Gamers Only

The University of Florida is teaching real world skills using the strategy game.

  • August 17, 2010

“My problem solving skills in StarCraft are the same problem solving skills learned in school or the real world,” declares Nate Poling, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida and the instructor behind EME2040: 21st Century Skills in StarCraft.

In just a few days, Poling and the 25 students who signed up for his three-credit course will pull up to their home gaming rigs - ahem, desks - and begin the first remotely-taught course in the history of the University of Florida.

The course is only open to students in UF’s honors college with at least “basic knowledge of and experience playing StarCraft.”

In other words: no n00bs. And possibly no girls, either.

In selling his superiors on the educational value of writing thoughtful essays about the resource management skills required of Space Marines in the midst of a quest to destroy a Zerg Overlord, “we did note that the course would attract mainly gamers and a predominantly male base,” says Poling.

“We felt that didn’t really matter because the whole point is to teach these skills and have players or learners hone these skills - at this point we didn’t think gender was a big issue,” he adds.

This isn’t the first time a course in Starcraft has been taught at the university level - Berkeley let an undergraduate teach a course about how to be a better StarCraft player. Poling’s course has no final exam, but it does count toward a student’s GPA, which, when you think about it, makes his students’ battlefield match-ups the highest-stakes StarCraft games outside the Korean pro leagues.

Despite the use of the world’s most famous real time strategy game as a tool for learning - “like a textbook or a syllabus is a tool,” insists Poling - the skills students are to transplant from intergalactic warfare in the 26th century to the boardrooms and cubicle farms of the 21st century are deadly serious.

“In StarCraft you’re managing a lot of different units and groups of different capacities,” says Poling. “It’s not a stretch to think of that in the business world or in the work of a healthcare administrator.”

Poling points out that people who manage hospitals, factories, small businesses and, say, nuclear power plants all have to manage people who have different abilities, and that they might have learned a thing or two about this process from StarCraft, which demands the same kind of resource and unit management.

The fact that in real life, you can’t just click on someone and count on their total obeisance to your command that they mount a suicide mission against the nearest Dark Templar is beside the point, says Poling.

“I’m not advocating getting rid of traditional teaching methods,” says Poling. “This is a supplement.”

Part of the appeal of this course to educators is the idea that students who enjoy their education and learn by doing are more likely to retain information that students who are slogging through other kinds of learning. This notion comes from the “constructivist” theory of education, which privileges learning by doing above learning by the usual method - osmosis from textbooks.

“A student who gets a normal education, gets an MBA, and is in the business world, he could realize that something he learned in his StarCraft course helps him think outside of the box. You synthesize this with an MBA program and voila - you have an innovative business practice,” says Poling.

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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