Games and education: a quick response to Martin Weller’s blog post

I enjoyed reading Martin Weller’s blog post on the difficulties of simply applying the video games model to education so much that I decided to retort. I’ve read Hitchens (Christopher, that is) too. I am not an expert on games nor education, but here’s my opening thoughts (too long to capture in a comment).

I’ve played quite a few games for a few years now and I’ve often thought of their potential uses in for education. I say ‘potential’ because I don’t think anyone has completely integrated gaming and  education (although I might be wrong: I’ve not done my research thoroughly – I’d be happy to be shown the light). I’m going to take Martin’s points one at a time, extracts from his blog post in quotes:

Point 1: “Discipline suitability – although there are open games, such as World of Warcraft, many games have a very definite structure. You have to follow the narrative, and this may work well for some well structured disciplines, but not for more discursive ones.”

Two things here. There has been a trend in games to adopt a more open, non-linear approach to in contrast to the traditional ‘on rails’ games. A good example is the Burnout series. In the first handful of (very successful) games, you were asked to drive through a series of pre-defined tracks, causing mayhem. In the latest incarnation, ‘Burnout Paradise’, things were different: you roamed around a increasingly large map at will, pulling stunts and so on, until you were ready for a task, in which case you would initiate it by stopping at a set of traffic lights.

But you know what? People didn’t like it (not all people, but many). They thought it too difficult to find and start the tasks they were looking for. It was too messy, too haphazard – just like real life, you might say. In this case, it might be down to the specific mechanics of how the game works. But this brings me my next point: having a definite structure and creatively immersing oneself in play (and learning) need not be mutually exclusive. For example, in the study of literature, undergraduates are often given examples of what to look for in a poem, its formal qualities – rhyme, rhythm, imagery and so on. These ‘rules’ are fairly tightly structured – we can’t redefine what an iambic pentameter is, say and a poem that is interpreted without it is likely to be less well served. But we can define what the use of iambic pentameter may mean and the effect it might have on the reader according to its use in the poem. It’s at this point that the application of a tight structure and process leads, indeed is necessary for, the creative engagement with a highly discursive subject, the study of poetry.

Point 2: “Creepy treehouse – games are fun and motivating precisely because they are about imaginary worlds where the player is an elven wizard, or a Miami based drug dealer, or a premiership football manager. Making games about the actual stuff we need to learn about removes all of this, and is an example of creepy treehouse syndrome.”

This implies that the game has to be about the subject in order for it to provide a valuable and memorable learning experience regarding that subject. I don’t think it does. Take, for example, the ‘horror survival’ series Resident Evil. In most of these games the player is forced to conserve ammo, despite the temptation to blast everything that moves. The lesson here is a simple one: don’t use everything good right away, think of the long term, don’t let panic undermine your chances of survival. This is a broad lesson that can be applied to a variety of situations (not just those in which you’re trying to evade the undead). I think it has been a failure of the educational games market on the whole to think they must make games about their subject in order to teach that subject and I admit it is going to take an iconoclastic leap in order to design games that teach without that approach. But I hope that something like the ‘Freakonomics’ book, where seemingly unpromising areas (drug dealing, selling real estate) are actually highly successful, if esoteric, grounds for comparison and learning about relatively complex macro economic ideas.

Point 3 – “Inappropriate pedagogy – I think this one is less convincing, as you can have constructivist or collaborative approaches in games, but many of the conventional game engines are based around a fairly Skinnerian reinforcement principle. We would need to be wary about adopting this wholesale.”

I agree with this, but I don’t think we need to worry, as the trend (as I see it) is not one that will continue reinforcing that reinforcement principle. One of the most successful examples of online collaboration (in and outside of gaming) I’ve seen is when players create new levels for others to play in the game ‘Little Big Planet’. Here, the tools to create levels are provided by the game itself. A simple front end allows users to move different objects – walls, swings, obstacles, all those things you find in platform games – in order to create a new experience. Other users find them by searching, or by popularity and so on, then download them and play. These new levels are rated with stars by those who play them, providing some incentive for the creator, alongside that of the intrinsic pleasure of creating something others might use, as well as learning the skills to do it. Splendid. Despite this, it’s not a completely representative example. Most games, I agree, have a competitive edge to their multiplayer component: you either try to kill, or drive faster, etc than your online component. In doing so, you learn something about the behaviour of others.

Point 4 – “A misleading metaphor – my main concern though is that the seeming similarities between education and gaming mask more fundamental differences. My argument for this lies in observing another industry that has been seduced by the apparent similarities with games, namely the film industry.”

It’s true that games have not been adapted well to cinema. But it’s not impossible to translate one medium to another, of course (cf graphic novels, often considered the game’s bedfellow; and other fiction, both to film). Is there something intrinsic in games that means that they cannot be adapted to any other medium? Is it further true that games cannot specifically be adapted to educational purposes? I doubt it.

While we think that games must adhere to some of the ideas above – they must match the approach, structure and processes of their associated educational subject (discursive subject means an open game); that they must be ‘about’ the educational subject they wish to teach; that they have yet to capture the qualities associated with collaboration; or that they are incapable as a medium to translate into a valuable learning experiences – then games as educational tools are doomed to failure, because both are on equally innovative paths that lead in different directions. I am certain one day these paths will cross – but it won’t be that games need to adhere to the models associated with learning, or vice versa, but that they will need to learn from one another.