(This post borrows heavily from James Paul Gee's ideas in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy)
It might be that video game designers know more about learning and teaching than many educators do.
I don't mean educational game designers. I mean developers like Rockstar Games - makers of Grand Theft Auto - and Blizzard - makes of Diablo, Warcraft, and Starcaft.
That seems like an outrageous claim. After all, who hasn't heard about those horrible video games, tearing at the fabric of society, turning our kids into murderers and thieves with no sense of morality or justice? Intuition and reason suggest that social violence is a natural outcome of digital violence, and if we're operating at that level, how can we even begin to talk about learning and teaching?
Of course, if you buy that games cause kids to become dangerous, you definitely buy that they are excellent teachers. They may not be teaching good content, but they are effective at what they do teach. That, however, is not the angle I would take. I believe that games are not, in fact, always good at teaching content, and certainly not at shaping external social behavior. While there's plenty of noise about the dangers of violent games (or violent TV, or violent anything), there is little reason to believe that exposure to violence on a screen makes students into killers. It's simply a much more complicated equation than that.
No, games - and especially the wildly successful ones like Grand Theft Auto - are good teachers of metacognition - of thinking as such - because they are built on a sound, well-implemented theories of learning. This is not because the guys who make GTA look for good learning theories when they build their engine and their plot, but rather it is a result of a competitive market: good games must satisfy players. What satisfies the gamer? An experience that is neither too easy, nor too difficult. Controlled frustration - where each stage of the game is difficult enough to require a creative use of already developed skills and newly acquired ones, but not so obtuse as to shut down the player - is vital to the marketability of any game.
Anyone can play GTA and run around stealing cars and killing innocent civilians, but that's not the point of the game, and it's ultimately not satisfying long-term for the player to simply get arrested or killed over and over as his crime-spree spirals out of control. Instead GTA, in order to be successful in a highly competitive game market, has to provide an involved plot with substantive challenges at every point. This is a more rewarding gaming experience, and it is what has made GTA so successful, even among people who have a sense of morality and justice and who are otherwise intelligent and hard-working people.
How does this happen? How do you achieve controlled frustration? This is a difficult question to answer, and I won't pretend to know how. What I will do, instead, is explain why it is an important question.
One of the key components of education is engagement, but too often students do not stay engaged in lessons. Why not? Is it really fair to demand that every lesson be "fun?" Of course not, but it is fair that the overall experience be one of controlled frustration, and that every lesson should be rewarding in a meaningful way. Most students who shut down do so because things are too hard or too simple for them. Like gamers, they will only "play the game" if the game challenges without overwhelming. That's not a remarkable insight, and teachers don't need to look to game designers to understand why their students "check out." Instead, what is valuable is that good games manage to maintain the interest of a wildly diverse number of players despite a standardized "curriculum." There is personalization, of course, but there is some magic in having such a dynamic game world aligned with what is usually a structured and fundamentally limited landscape.
Game designers are faced with the challenge of operating in an extremely limited game world, with code as their only resource, and must create an environment in which suspension of disbelief is possible, and in which the gamer will be encouraged to continue playing. This is no small feat, and few professions ask its members to do more with less. And yet, gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry world wide. This, I believe, is the result of a highly sophisticated sense of exactly how to engage the player.
Many educators think of technology as a tool to contribute to learning, or, alternatively, as a replacement for traditional models of instruction. It is neither; it is a whole knew environment in which learning can take place. Traditional content can be ported to technology, traditional skills and lessons can be aided by technological devices and software. But the true power of technology lies in the whole new world it provides, where the fundamentals of student-teacher interaction can transform. That does not mean the elimination of traditional teaching - any more than the explosion of video games has meant the death of board games, card games, or tag - instead it means a whole new world of opportunity for educators. Just as video games were first adaptations of board games (for example, Dungeons and Dragons became Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and countless others), but have now expanded into unique genres especially designed for computers (Portal, Mass Effect, and Demigod come to mind here), education will almost certainly follow a similar path.
But there is no need, as education expands into the digital world, to reinvent the digital wheel. Scaffolding is a big deal in education, but scaffolding digitally is different than it is in a lesson plan, and game designers already get it.
It is no accident that magazines like Edutopia - as well as more formal research journals - are beginning to embrace games not only as a potential source of usable information, but also as allies in the broader educational mission. The distrust for gaming that many Baby Boomers feel, while certainly a valid emotional reaction to a cultural artifact that is not obviously beneficial, increasingly comes across as the reticence to recognize the value of the innovation of a new generation. Gee, in fact, speculates that many older people dislike games simply because they are too hard to pick up and play for a generation that did not grow up with computers. The deeper hatred of gaming, as such, is just a rationalization for not being able to get into these bizarre and complicated games that kids are so good at.
So what does any of that have to do with metacognition? Well, the key here is in the particulars of a given game. Some games are fairly formulaic, and straightforward, but many - more than you think - actually force the player to consciously ask himself "Why can't I get past this part?" In order to answer that question, the player has to extract himself from the game so he can reflect on what skills and knowledge he has acquired so far, and how he has used it to get past earlier parts of the game. He has to, then, consider whether or not he can recombine those skills and abilities to solve this new problem, or if he can develop an altogether new skill or ability. In short, the player has to consciously reflect not just on the game itself, but on the way he is playing the game, in order to be successful. That is metacognition, and a holy grail for any teacher.
Imagine if students - as a matter of course - simply had to reflect upon how they were learning in order to "get past" the next stage of their education? In reality, this is probably true. Few graduate students are unfamiliar with their own thought-process. But how many of those students had conscious metacognition build into their curricula as a student? More importantly, how often was that metacognition built in effectively, and not merely as a stunt? How often were those students - even the most successful, brightest, straight-A students - compelled to solve a learning problem for themselves through metacognition? I'd guess not often. And yet anyone who has played Grand Theft Auto has, albeit about somewhat less practical subject matter.
I've hit on a number of topics here, many of which could probably bare explication. The broader point, though, that ties all of those sub-topics together is this: games have something to teach us about learning, and may not be the "waste of time" we often consider them to be.