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.

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