Spaces for Playing to Learn

When I think about games and education, one of the most interesting aspects is that you must be active when you play a game. This isn’t necessarily the case when reading, and often one’s mind can wonder even as the act of reading continues (wait… what?). Beyond the simple fact that the gamer must actively engage with the game, is the question of what the gamer plays with. As Bogost points out, “play refers to the “possibility space” created by constraints of all kinds” (120). And the constraints of this “possibility space” can effectively model incredibly complex systems. As Neys and Jansz put it, “The capacity of serious games to reveal complex situations in a relatively simple way is what distinguishes this medium from other, more traditional, media forms” (229). And by complex systems, what’s meant is a variety ranging from games that show students how city planners interact with local governments and communities to games that show the sweep of human history. What’s significant here is that the “possibility space” provides a place for the player to play with the rules, concepts, and principles of whatever system is being modeled.

If we believe Vygotsky’s idea that for learning to happen we need active learners and active learning environments, then the pedagogical potential for games shouldn’t be seen as a fad or academic affectation. Games can be a step even further beyond the knowledge banking model of teaching. Their potential resides in the necessarily active component of play. I’m not for a moment suggesting that gaming will replace print literacy, but games can represent a unique space in which to put various kinds of learning into practice. Obviously this can work well for content knowledge, but since games create systems based on rules, this can work equally well for principles and more abstract concepts.

Of course the third thing Vygotsky said was necessary to learning, in addition to an active learning environment and an active learner, was an active teacher. While games have some significant contributions to make to our curriculum, it will still be us, as the teachers, who need to find ways to integrate games into the classroom. We will be the ones who have to help our students make the connections between the various texts we choose to bring into the classrooms. So as new and different a text as a game may seem, our role in relation to this new, strange text is till the same.

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4 comments on “Spaces for Playing to Learn

  1. Hi, Jason. We’ve had a few conversations about video games, in groups and such, this semester. As you might know, I’m a non-gamer played who owned a Nintendo 64 and only one game, Diddy Kong Racing. Admittedly, I often thought of video games of a waste of time…until last week’s articles and your blog post. While I still don’t see much potential in Diddy Kong Racing, I see now that many video games can be powerful tools for learning, as you wrote. I’d like to experience the procedural rhetoric of a video game, but I imagine I might get frustrated, as one of the articles said adults would if they tried a game. Do you have any recommendations? Well, I enjoyed your insights, Jason, and wanted to share my amended view with you.

  2. Hi Emily,

    I recommend trying either Darfur is Dying or UN Food Force. These are fast games (less than 20 minutes of gameplay) and the game design is meant to be relatively transparent so that learning the mechanics won’t interfere with gameplay. As you’re playing ask yourself what sort of political and educational affordances these game present. I think you’ll find there will be explicit and implicit ones.

    Here’s some further reading about the games (with links in them to the games):

    An article on Darfur is Dying.

    And one on UN Food Force.

    And some general reading on teens and gaming by Pew research:

    A study done by Pew Research on gaming and teens.

    Have fun!

  3. To go along with the idea that games make learning active, I think they’re also a way for students to create, collaborate and mainly, produce, while employing various modes of learning. Even though the end product isn’t something that is really tangible, within gaming worlds (depending on which game) there are visual and immediate results produced, often with almost instant consequences. A major point we have been studying in this class is the idea that with new media students are no longer consumers but producers, and I think the gaming world has some stake in that. I wonder if there is any relationship between the hand eye coordination used while gaming/using critical thinking skills and the hand eye coordination/critical thinking skills used while writing.

    • I wonder if there is any relationship between the hand eye coordination used while gaming/using critical thinking skills and the hand eye coordination/critical thinking skills used while writing.

      That’s an interesting question, because from what I’ve seen, it’s open to a lot of debate still. Essentially what you’re talking about is the issue of transfer, in particular the narrower question of whether and to what degree gameplay transfers to other areas. Here’s one article that presents some of the reasons to be skeptical of transfer that isn’t designed into the outcomes of the game [emphasis added]:

      Unfortunately for educators looking to use games to support learning, this skeptical transfer limits what we hope players might learn from gaming. While pundits and theorists suggest that game-playing might be increasing kids critical thinking or problem-solving skills (See Katz, 2000; Prensky, 2000), research on transfer gives very little reason to believe that players are developing skills that are useful in anything but very similar contexts. A skilled Half-Life player might develop skills that are useful in playing Unreal Tournament (a very similar game), but this does not mean that players necessarily develop generalizable “strategic thinking” or “planning” skills. Just because a player can plan an attack or develop a lightning quick reactions in Half-Life does not mean that she can plan her life effectively, or think quickly in other contexts, such as in a debate or in a courtroom – one of the main reasons being that these are two entirely different contexts and demand very different social practices.,/blockquote>

      Here’s a National Geographic article that draws some transfer parallels between games and the real world, but note the similar contexts in which the skills are applied:

      Action video gamers tend to be more attune to their surroundings while performing tasks like driving down a residential street, where they may be more likely to pick out a child running after a ball than a non-video gamer.

      So your question of whether the transfer of critical thinking skills and hand eye coordination is possible probably is somewhat dependent on the kind of game being played. It seems doubtful that a first person shooter like Crysis 2 engenders many skills that transfer to critical reading and writing, but that isn’t to say that other games, like Darfur is Dying don’t have some transfer of knowledge and possibly even skills. Whatever the case, helping the students become aware, at a meta-level, of what the connections are between gameplay and other tasks/pursuits is something that I think the teacher has to carefully design for in his or her pedagogy.

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