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He’s got game: Shead High School teacher offers course in online gaming

Posted March 29, 2014, at 4:41 p.m.

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A video screen displays and online game for a course being taught at Shead High School in Eastport.
Tim Cox | BDN
A video screen displays and online game for a course being taught at Shead High School in Eastport. Buy Photo
Ben Brigham, an English teacher at Shead High School, interacts with (from left) Dalton Theriault and Kelsey Shepard during his course in online gaming.
Tim Cox | BDN
Ben Brigham, an English teacher at Shead High School, interacts with (from left) Dalton Theriault and Kelsey Shepard during his course in online gaming. Buy Photo
Ben Brigham, an English teacher at Shead High School, gestures toward a video monitor while teaching his course in online gaming.
Tim Cox | BDN
Ben Brigham, an English teacher at Shead High School, gestures toward a video monitor while teaching his course in online gaming. Buy Photo
 Ben Brigham, an English teacher at Shead High School, says he is challenging students in his elective online gaming course with college-level material.
Tim Cox | BDN
Ben Brigham, an English teacher at Shead High School, says he is challenging students in his elective online gaming course with college-level material. Buy Photo

EASTPORT, Maine — You have to hand it to Ben Brigham, an English teacher at Shead High School. He’s got game. To be more precise, he teaches an elective course in online gaming.

Brigham, 37, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, has been teaching at Shead for seven years.

“Computers and video games have just always been part of my life as a kid,” he said in interviews this week and last week about the course, Cultural Studies: Gaming, Narrative and Culture.

However, he did not begin playing online games until 2007, when he found some of his students playing a game — “RuneScape” — in class on a MacBook. Fast forward to 2011: Brigham now is now a player-moderator for “RuneScape,” considered by Guinness World Records to be the world’s largest massively multiplayer online role-playing game with more than 200 million accounts.

Brigham, who also teaches freshman English composition and, for juniors, a course in American literature, got the idea for the online gaming class when he discovered similar courses that are offered by major universities, such as Vanderbilt and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I basically thought to myself, ‘Why not?’” He already knew his students enjoyed gaming, which is a significant part of the popular culture, he noted. A class about online gaming probably would interest and engage them more than a novel by William Faulkner, but still could challenge them, he suggested.

“Anything that gets a young person thinking critically about the world they live in is not a waste of time,” said Brigham. If students are going to play games, why not tap into that, he suggested, and have them analyze them. Brigham compared it to analyzing a novel for an English class.

Brigham broached the idea of the course with principal Paul Theriault.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘We’re going to play games in school?’” recalled Theriault, discussing the course at his office on Tuesday. “Where does that fit into education?”

He is satisfied the course, as proposed and taught by Brigham, has educational value. “I have a lot of faith in Ben. He’s a great teacher. Everything he does revolves around some sort of educational experience,” explained Theriault.

Students taking the course, which is being offered for the first time this semester, are reading “Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games,” by Edward Castronova. They also are viewing a series of videos from the Discovery Channel about the history of video games. In addition, Brigham teaches — and students have writing assignments about — issues related to games, including current events, and some college-level concepts, such as economics and chaos theory. The students are using critical thinking and writing skills, according to Brigham.

During the class on Tuesday, Brigham mixed lecture and discussion about online game agreements, creating accounts, software installation and other topics — along with instructions for a writing assignment: “Use complete sentences,” he reminded them. And yes, they played for a while.

“They love it,” Brigham said of his students. Ten students are registered for the course, and two additional students take it. He has four boys and eight girls.

“They think it’s a course all about playing video games,” Brigham said Tuesday after teaching his gaming course. “Really, it’s a course all about examining the world that they’re in and deepening their critical thinking and writing skills.”

Shead has many students from disadvantaged backgrounds, observed Brigham, and keeping those students engaged “is an issue that we’re always struggling with,” he said.

The video game industry is a big player in the world of entertainment. It had revenues of $20.7 billion in 2013, surpassing the music industry ($16.5 billion), the combination of Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association ($19.3 billion), and the movie industry ($9.4 billion), according to figures compiled by Brigham.

Brigham’s students also are involved in a community service project. They will hold a 12-hour gaming marathon to raise funds for the Eastport Arts Center and Eastern Maine Medical Center’s Child and Adolescent Care Center. Students are currently seeking sponsors to contribute funds to these groups. The event will be held at the high school from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. April 12.

For more information about the event or to contribute, contact Brigham at bbrigham@shead.org.

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