Thursday, December 10, 2009

Gaming and Learning

The following comes from one of my classes, called Technology for Learners. It's a reflection on one of the topics covered during the course written for our end-of-quarter assignment.

Why do we love games so much? The gaming industry in the United States is huge and growing, taking advantage of faster hardware and a generation that has grown up with computers. Educational games, however, retain something of a stigma. Partially that's a matter of budgets and advertising, to be sure, but I wonder whether the objectives of the game makers come into play as well.

James Paul Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy discusses a great many of the aspects of video games, with a special concern for the learning theories that are implicit in the design of commercial video games. He argues that, in order to survive in the competitive video game market, game designers have to walk a fine line between making games challenging and still possible to defeat. They need to provide information in a timely manner to players. They need to pose problems for the gamer that require creative thinking and new combinations of skills as the game goes on. Often they tell a story, too, with moral or philosophical implications that are – if not profound – at least engaging to the player.

What do games teach? They teach, fundamentally, how to play the game, but they do it so well that it feels seamless to the player. When I play Knights of the Old Republic, I don't think of myself as “learning the game,” at least not at first. I'm playing. And that's an important difference.

Many educational games seem focused on learning first, and fun or play second. In short, they simply try to port already existing material into a different format. That is not an inherently flawed task, but it misses the point. Rather than trying to mix classical epistemology and modern technology, wouldn't it be better to bring the two together? Isn't it possible that if an educational game was designed first as a good game, and second as a good teaching tool, it might be better at both? I don't have an answer to that question, but it is worth considering given the dearth of good educational games.

After all, there are games which bill themselves as commercial that are also educational, and indeed I owe many of the lessons I have learned about history to titles like
Europa Universalis, an innovative and successful franchise of strategy games published by Paradox Interactive. In EU the player takes on the role of the leader of any number of the hundreds of fledging nations around the world in the late middle ages (or in Rome, in one of their games). Whether the player chooses to play as the already established and powerful England, the all-but doomed Aztecs, or the fledging but not-yet-established Novgorod (which can later become the nation of Russia), the game is the same. Because the player can choose to start on any day (!) between the 1450s and the early 1800s, it is, ultimately, a sandbox for exploring alternative histories, and for comparing the strengths of nations at various times throughout history. Some modifications of the game allow for even more historical accuracy than comes with the game natively.

Europa Universalis
was not made for classroom use, and to my knowledge it is not used in any educational setting. Its following is composed mainly of history buffs who don't mind the steep learning curve and strategy enthusiasts who are looking for something a little more challenging and open ended than the larger commercial mainstays like the Civilization games or traditional Real Time Strategy games like Starcraft. Nevertheless, EU is a highly educational game, designed first to be a good game, and is educational because it makes the game better.

While one example does not a principle make, it seems to me that, given the importance of engagement, frankly, fun, in learning, it might behoove educators to design games that are first and foremost good games. Even that, as Gee suggests, might have some metacognitive value for the player. When we engage with games, it is not uncommon for us to not only learn the game, but to work at dissecting how the game was designed. Experienced gamers discover not only the best strategies, but often discover the loopholes in game design. That does not lead to fun, of course, but it is a long process that, in good games, might take a full play-through or two to complete, and it is the process behind it that counts. Playing games can be, in essence, a de facto education in the principles of game design, which may well be transferable from the computer game world to other areas of design.

Gee also discusses identity. The way that we experiment with identities when we're playing games is a very important part of the learning process. Gee argues that students have to imagine themselves as scientists, for example, when they go into the chemistry lab in order for the learning they do there to be meaningful. While a given game may not teach us to be scientists, a great many games involve taking on an alternate identity. Some genres, like strategy, tend to place the player in more of an all-powerful, God-like role which is not so much an identity as a set of powers and limitations. On the other hand, Role Playing Games (RPGs) are explicitly driven by identity. “What Does it Mean to Be a Half-Elf?” One of Gee's chapter titles asks. He speaks to his experiences playing a game, called
Arcanum, as a female half-elf, explaining the effect on his conception of identity and the learning it inspired in him.

Without going into great detail, Gee breaks down his experience of identity in the gaming world in three ways. There is the identity of the player, the identity of the player as a character, and, finally, the identity of the player as a player of the game. The relationship between the latter two are particularly interesting and important, because it is in that space that metacognition cannot help but happen. When confronted with a moral dilemma – as players of RPGs often are – the player must choose whether to act according to his own moral code or the code of his character (if that is different than his own). Regardless of the choice, often companions of the main character will question the decision, forcing the player to justify his actions not only to himself, but to his digital “friends.” It is here that the player sometimes gets pushed into that third place, the mediation between player and character that is, as Gee calls is, player
as character (as opposed to player as character or player as character). In addition to asking whether the decision made was right or wrong, the player asks whether the decision was right or wrong for his character.

Transferring that level of thought to the science class would make, I think, for the science teacher's dream-come-true. Imagine if students, when they went about doing a complicated laboratory exercise, asked themselves not only if what they were doing was good science or good studentship, but rather if they were doing a good job at understanding what it means to be a scientist. Taking on the identity of scientist happens perhaps not often enough, but I think Gee's point – and on I agree with him on – is that students who successfully take on those roles are a step closer to metacognition, because metacognitive questions arise naturally from taking on alternate identities.

Educational games strike me as sometimes being afraid to play the identity game. The Math Blaster series was fun for me as a child, but I never really identified with shooting equations out of the sky. The game was more arcade than RPG, more diversion than immersion, and that is not the mark of a good game.

Gee suggests that, on some level, learning happens even with games like
Grand Theft Auto or Doom. I don't know whether that is true, but it seems reasonable to me. Regardless, the value of games, above all, is that they are interactive in a way that television, for example, is not. While there is great virtue in going outside to play sports, there is perhaps also great virtue in staying inside to play games.

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