Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Learning from Gaming

As educators we would like to try to engage teenagers in learning. Video game developers have to engage teenagers in learning - or they are out of work! I've just read James Gee's Why Video Games are Good for Your Soul and have much to reflect on...

Gee believes that good video games give people control, agency and meaning while promoting deep learning that closely aligns with the learning that has often been identified as necessary for the 21st century - creative problem solving, metacognition, systems thinking, transformative learning...

Gee believes that video game developers do this by:
  • giving people well designed visual and embodied experiences
  • helping people to use these experiences to think imaginatively about future actions
  • letting people safely experience the consequences of their actions
He believes that game developers use the latest research from neuroscience and are guided by many "learning principles" such as:
  • learning is experiential
  • learning should encourage risk taking
  • learning is an extended engagement of self
  • learning can be customised to suit learning styles
  • problem solving leads to generalisations that assist in solving more complex problems
  • learning is "just in time" or "on demand"
  • learning is interactive
  • there are many ways to solve a problem
  • there are intrinsic rewards keyed to the learner's level of expertise
Gee points out that in spite of their success at engaging learners few video game publishers associate their products with 'learning' - too much negative baggage associated with that word :-)

I am not a video game player... the last games I played were mostly in the late 80s... minesweeper was about as far as I got... but I now think that there might be much to gain by looking at the ways in which good video games engage teenagers - partly because most of our teenagers are so-called "digital-natives" - and partly because I know that the majority of our students play video games - particularly males - and to very high levels.

How is it that strategy games like Rise of Nations can build player skills and knowledge to the point where they are thinking and operating across space and time in many complex relationships to create a well integrated and sustainable civilization - all for FUN?

As Gee says: "This is heady stuff indeed. This type of thinking is the very hallmark and foundation of the deepest and most complicated thinking in the sciences. Biologists, physicists, and social scientists must think in these sorts of ways in order to study the complex systems they are engaged with."

In the book Gee outlines the many ways in which different kinds of video games engage both individual and multiple players in virtual worlds from first-person to god-like perspectives... each type of game involving different player-game dynamics, skills, knowledge and development.

Another aspect that interests me at the moment is the way in which video games encourage players to move up levels gaining expertise and experience... Can we learn something here about good assessment practice?

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At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Laurie said...

Speaking as a successful university graduate and computer game player, I'm skeptical of the possibility for games to teach academic studies. There is a qualitative difference between the kind of learning in a game and that of a harder academic subject.

As an example, I studied mathematics. In mathematics there is a very structured kind of learning to be undertaken. Learning a proof requires a precise understanding of concepts, definitions and some logical processes (really the steps involved). To begin with, just reading a proof cannot be divorced from the language of mathematics which is precise and formalised, and therefore, often dry.

There is no way to turn this into a game. You may be able to give a student some intuitive understanding of a derivative by a game involving trajectories or objects or something (perhaps like the game Scorched Earth, where players control fixed tanks that fire at one another, dealing with variables such as wind and gravity). But you cannot translate that into the kind of formal training necessary to prove the fundamental theorem of calculus, learn the precise definition of a limit or to solve a an integration problem on the complex plane. It is a simple fact in mathematics that learning it is a very difficult and formalized process.

Someone reading this might respond that mathematics is a special case. Well, yes, it may be. But any subject like physics or engineering that heavily relies on it will be similarly hampered, even without looking at it on its own merits.

Take another example: economics, which I also studied. I admit that first year economics, being so dogmatic, probably lends itself a little to demonstration of the principles asserted in lectures. However, when it comes to explaining why the price of crude oil rises when a refinery fire occurs (which a successful first year economics student ought to be able to explain, even if they might be baffled at first by the apparent paradox), a vague understanding of principles of economics gleaned from a game (which also often get economics fundamentally wrong anyway) will not give them any insight. Only a carefully reasoned and structured application of formal definitions and principles from economics will give them an idea of what is going on.

Maybe, still economics is too 'mathsy'. It's often alleged that economics suffers from maths envy (although, my example above requires no maths to solve, just carefully reasoned arguments or, alternatively, diagrams). So, perhaps a better example is history.

A student might learn about events and dates from playing a historical game. Paradox's Europa Universalis II is a good example of this: the player controls a historical country, from the 15th century to the end of the 18th. From time to time historical events affect the game and the player is treated to a text-box that relates the event to explain why it happened. This certainly has some value. However, the teaching of history these days is more about how to learn history, than actually learning about events. The goal is ideally to teach the student to research, critically assess sources and to argue points coherently. All of which are best learned, of course, by doing them, which is hard to put into a game. (I can just imagine a game where you're playing Harold at the Battle of Hastings and the game demands to know from you why you lost, and how we know you lost).

The common thread to all these subjects (and, I believe, any academic subject) is that they require a highly formalized learning. This is precisely what games are not good at teaching. They all require an intuitive learning. There's a simple reason for this: the moment you make a game require people to learn lots of interfaces, hard concepts and structures, which usually involves reading a hefty manual, the player feels they are doing work, and the game will bomb. This happens all the time with overly ambitious games that require a lot of learning on the part of the player.

The day that gamers feel that they want to open an Exel spreadsheet and figure out an optimal strategy to their game playing by using the simplex method (which I bet they didn't learn by playing games), is the day that I believe games will teach academic subjects.

I do think that games can teach people useful things. But these are more likely to be life skills, like negotiation, communication, management and similar such subjects like doing business, which to a degree do not lend themselves to heavy formulization because of their relative complexity and our lack of understanding (however, this will only teach the student the applied end of these subjects, not the deeper questions and explanations necessary for academics).

In short, by playing a game you're learning concepts intuitively, while academics requires a formal learning, which, by its nature, is simply hard work and unavoidable. At best, in these areas, games could help motivate the student (you could win if you applied more formal processess) or perhaps it would act a relaxant to the mind, or help compliment their learning to give them an intuitive grasp.

At 3:35 PM, Blogger Roger said...

Thanks for your comments laurie.

I must admit that I had not thought of trying to get students to learn definitions and derive proofs from first principles using games. I've taught students the very examples you give in mathematics and think that there are better more traditional ways...

I was thinking more of learning things like systems thinking and the other examples in my post.

However, I am talking about formal, academic and complex learning. I think there are many ways to teach difficult "academic" concepts that are both formal and rigorous - but which do not necessarily involve sequential linear thinking and processes.

You mention that the goal in history "is ideally to teach the student to research, critically assess sources and to argue points coherently."

I think Gee is saying that in a game like Rise of Nations the player can build up a wide range of knowledge and skills, critically assess complex situations and make coherent judgements...

Equally valuable learning I think...

I think your notion of giving students some intuitive understanding of concepts through games that can complement other more formal inductive or deductive processes is worth looking into...

And since writing this post I've also been reading more about other things one might learn through games... I've put some links to places like the Serious Games Initiative and Games for Change on one of my gaming wiki pages - Impact of Games

Cheers, Roger


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