A large portion of class this past week was spent revisiting the topic of ‘gaming and learning’ that we were introduced to (but then didn’t really discuss) two weeks ago in watching the TED talk from Jane McGonigal on “How Gaming Can Save the World.” It was very interesting and lively discussion from the class. Our class has a number of gamers, but the majority described themselves as non-gamers (though, in reality, I think it’s pretty rare for people to not play games – maybe some of us play different games, and some of us take them more seriously, but when it comes down to it, I think humans are gamers). Our class also has a number of former (and current?) teachers, which always bring an interesting and practical bent to our discussions of teaching methods.
One point that I brought up near the end of the discussion, which I want to expand on a bit here, is the overly structured nature of many “educational” games (or “edutainment” games). In her talk, McGonigal spends a lot of time on the popularity of World of Warcraft (WoW). I think that games like WoW (e.g. The Sims, the Grand Theft Auto series) derive a lot of their popularity from their relatively unstructured nature. This lack of structure has been hard to get to – while I’m no scholar of gaming history, I do know that many early games, such as Pac-man, were so structured that expert players could simply memorize a pattern of joystick moves that would get them through each level. Then came Ms. Pac-man, which added an element of stochasticness to the game play – players could no longer simply memorize joystick movements in order to win. This more challenging form of game play is probably at least somewhat responsible for Ms. Pac-man’s enduring popularity.
When it comes to educational games, though, structure has always been there heavy-handedly limiting players options. Thinking back to games like Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and Lemonade Stand, I remember enjoying these games because they were on a computer (and because I just really like games). However, simply being on a computer is not enough for a game to be popular nowadays, but many educational game designers seem to think so. Someone in class spoke of using a video game where you got to “be a banker” in a class they were teaching. To me, this sounds thoroughly unexciting. I don’t want to be a banker, and I’ve never wanted to be a banker. Now, if a game gave me choices as to what “career” I could pursue in the game, I think I would be a bit more interested and engaged with whatever the game was teaching me. Telling students they have to be a banker (or run a lemonade stand, or munch on numbers) seems no better than telling students they “have to” memorize multiplication tables. It’s hard to make connections and find points of transfer when you’re not interested in what you’re doing in the first place.
Finally, I have a bit of a suggestion of my own. I’ve long thought that we need to be teaching more computer programming skills to students – you get the benefits of learning a language, learning about logic, and learning about organizational issues, among other things (you also actually learn about how computer programs work, instead of just learning how to use them, which I think is invaluable for students growing up in a digital world). A great way to teach computer programming skills is through teaching students to make their own games. Now, designing the next WoW is going to be a bit above the skill level of novice programmers, but, at the same time, wouldn’t it be great to see what students themselves would create when we ask them to make a game to teach their fellow students?