Monday, September 23, 2013

Video Games and Curriculum

There are three ways that I'm interested in thinking about the intersection of video games and curriculum. I'll discuss each briefly here, starting from the most-researched to the least-researched.

1) Video Games as Curriculum Support

Most of the early research on video games and learning has been about "educational games" or the less baggage-laden rebranding "games for learning." The idea is, in short, that students enjoy playing games, and so we can trick them into learning by putting curriculum into a game. If, like me, you grew up with Math Blaster, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, or Mario Teaches Typing you know what these games are like: enjoyable to a point, but ultimately limited in their appeal to the particular curricular situations in which they are employed.* Rarely are educational games - even the best of them - actually all that great as games. They are often closer to gamified curriculum than game for learning.

* OK, I get that Carmen San Diego in particular has some appeal beyond the classroom, but it really is one of the most exceptional educational games ever created.

It is fair to say that games for learning have come a long way in the past 20 years, however, and today there are many exceptionally enjoyable games that are explicitly designed to encourage learning. For example, the work of Motion Math (founded by fellow LDT students) shows the potential to engage students in a learning experience that still has good game design.

A related idea involves commercial games instead of games for learning. A recent Stanford graduate named Dylan Arena wrote his dissertation on commercial video games as preparation for future learning. The idea is that, by engaging students in a good game experience, you give them motivation and a reference point for understanding curricular material. His results are fascinating, demonstrating that we can, in fact, use games like Civilization and even the much-maligned Call of Duty to motivate students as they learn history.

In all, this is a vitally important area of research and innovation, and only good things can be said about the improvement of games for learning. The issue, to my mind, is that for many researchers the intersection of games and curriculum stops here. The question is an important one: How can we use games to teach what we already teach? But it's far from the only question we should be asking about learning and games.

2) Game Design as a Subject

As the game industry grows, there are more and more people who wish to become game designers, or to study game design and development. Game design programs are cropping up everywhere, but these are rarely founded upon principles of good curriculum development. In part this is because game design is a moving target. How can we design backwards when we don't really know what the end point should be?

Needless to say, there's a research opportunity here: how can we best teach game design? There are texts out there, but I don't think any are grounded in data about the outcomes of potential designers who go through game design programs.

I don't want to get bogged down, however, in thinking that game design should be exclusively a post-secondary and specialized study. I would rephrase the research question in this way, then: how can we best teach game design in such a way that any student at any level can better understand games and their role in society? Game design is a practical discipline and a career, in some sense, but it is also a theoretical subject with implications for just about everybody (because who doesn't play or watch games of some kind?). In this sense, game design is less about job training and more about learning to think.

3) Video Games as Curricular Artifacts

In some sense this is a related idea to the above, but I want to make a distinction between studying game design and studying games. In the above, game design is a vehicle for teaching creativity and critical thinking, but the subject is still the design process. This final idea is about games as art. Games as literature. Games as intrinsically valuable and interesting curricular artifacts. In much the way that we ask students to read books, to analyze them, to discuss them and write about them, I propose that we could and should do the same with games. Not all games, or any game, but certain games.

Why should we do this? Well, why should we study literature? Because games, like literature, can be insightful and profound, can teach us more about what it means to be human, can offend us, can expose us to other ways of thinking about the world, can allow us to imagine living lives very different from our own. And like literature, it is a waste to play (as with books, some) games unthinkingly. But when and where do we teach students to play games well? Not just to be good at games, but to be a good and critical reader/player of games? At present, the closest we get is by reading books in English class. But this is learning by analogy, when we could use games as artifacts in their own right.

The counter-argument here, of course, is that games are not worthy of the status we bestow upon books. But that is a position with which I cannot agree. True, there are a great many games which are far from great literature, but there are also a great many books which are unworthy of deep study. Why condemn games as a genre because some - and some of the most successful commercially - are philosophically, literately, or creatively deficient? There are gems (Journey, Shadow of the Colossus, To The Moon to name three) that are every bit as interesting as any text. And what's more, they afford conversations about more than just narrative: they invite questions about interactivity, about design, about linearity and non-linearity of experience. It is my conviction that a well-designed curriculum that studies games as art would be at least as effective - if not more so - at teaching the kinds of thinking, writing, and speaking skills - as well as the qualities of introspection, skepticism, and critique - we want students to acquire in humanities courses in their K-12 and college experiences.

Perhaps I should voice that conviction as a question: are video games valuable curricular artifacts in their own right? I may believe so, but I suspect few do. Most importantly, I know of anyone who has any data or research that supports either position.

Friday, September 13, 2013

An Observation about Research on Video Games in Education

I'm hoping to get back into writing on this blog in the near future. In particular, I plan to write some short-ish posts to help collect my thoughts about video games, learning, and education. This first post is a kind of brief overview and problem statement. Others - including, I hope, some analysis of actual games - will follow.

Research on video games in education tends to fall into two broad camps. The first is research on "games for learning," a rebranding of "educational games." While games for learning have come a long way in the past few years, they are still by-and-large less interesting, less polished, and less fun than commercial games. They may be successful at teaching what they are trying to teach, but they have limited appeal beyond the specific curricular situation they were designed for. In some sense they are to commercial games what textbooks are to other books.

The second major camp of video game research in education is on the social aspects of gaming. This includes research on phenomena like guilds in MMORPGs, where under-performing students can sometimes show tremendous mathematical, organizational, and leadership ability within the context of the game whilst failing to exhibit those same qualities in the classroom. It also includes studies on gaming communities and the extend to which they are or are not communities of practice. By-and-large this kind of research focuses on multiplayer and social gaming, though there are exceptions.

In my reading of research from both of these camps, I've seen a general shortcoming that plagues many studies: while games are ostensibly part of the subject of the research, rarely is game genre, quality, or design taken into account by the researchers. It's as if we wanted to research books, and then didn't differentiate between Hamlet, The Lord of the Rings, and Rainbow Six. Those are books of wildly different genres, wildly different styles and time periods, and of various qualities (I doubt even Clancy himself would consider his book worthy of inclusion in a high school curriculum, for example).

I think this problem stems from the generational gap around games. While more and more researchers realize that games are a big deal - Constance Steinkuehler is fond of pointing out that the gaming industry outpaces movies and music combined in revenue these days - there are still precious few researchers who are actually gamers. What's more, the cultural stigma around games is that they are entertainment at best, and at worst social disease. To return to the book analogy, it's as if researchers on literature weren't avid readers, and indeed doubted whether books were legitimate forms of artistic and creative expression. A little skepticism is probably good, but skepticism should be born of familiarity, not ignorance.