New Media Seminar Week 9: Obsession in the Classroom?

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This week's reading was on Video Games and Computer Holding Power by Sherry Turkle, which summarizes her ethnographic observations of game players from 1984. I thought was thoughtful in that it pointed out that gaming wasn't mindless, but pointed out that games have their own traps (I'm thinking of the episode "Hollow Pursuits" of Star Trek: TNG where one of the crew members deals with holodeck people rather than real people because he can control their reactions much better).

Gaming (and Knitting) Obsession

However another point that struck me was how one teenage girl had developed a love-hate relationship with her game. She had reached a fairly high level in the game, and while I am pretty sure she liked it in the beginning...at that moment she loathed it because she couldn't advance to the next level. But of course, she couldn't stop playing it until she had achieved a certain level.

This obsession is well-known among the gaming literature, but my first point is that it's NOT just gaming. Many complex tasks can rise to the same level of obsessive love/hate including Sudoku, puzzles, golf, knitting/embroidery, programming and cooking. The desire to improve your performance even as you are slowly being driven insane is what adds drama to many a reality TV competition show.

Obsession is also what drives us to complete tasks and spend the time needed to master complex skills. In many cases too, the reward is intrinsic (at least in terms of financial gain). Maybe you complete a game level to show the game who is boss or to get a higher score than your friends. I've completed some projects because I was confident that they would look "cool." For a lot of these challenges, I am happy if other people like the results, but not necessarily concerned if they don't.

Obsession in the Classroom

An interesting question is how well can this be translated into the classroom? Motivation is a key aspect of your being willing to go through the agony needed to master some skills. I was willing to start a knitted hat seven times (not kidding), and I was putting serious time trying to get to level 8 of Bewjeweled. But do we know anyone willing to put in the same effort for their homework? Only very rarely (and usually only if it's in the student's major).

We are investigating educational games because we assume that they will be more enjoyable than traditional homework assignments, and I do believe that is true...up to a point. One challenge though is that not everyone likes every game. I was willing to learn the different plant weapons for Plants vs. Zombies, but not necessarily those for other war games. Nor have I been attracted to John Madden's NFL Football, Grand Theft Auto or even golf. Not working for me for whatever reason.

You could assign a sports game like John Madden's NFL Football in a business class and have students learn some good financial lessons in managing talent. Again though, what if you don't like football (or basketball or hockey)? Without knowing who the current stars are or how to evaluate them for a game, the play is fairly meaningless.

Could we supplement this kind of exercise with a series of optional games? If the point of using a game in a hypothetical business class is resource management, maybe other games could be added like Cake Mania which might appeal to the non-sports crowd.

The Game of Higher Education

The larger challenge is the effect of being in a structured classroom at all on motivation. Even if you are taking a class in a subject you love, chances are you are still a little bit concerned about your course grade (I know I was). In your recreational life, you can take a class and focus on what you need to know. If you don't get a great grade or performance, so what? It doesn't count. If you really are bad at it, you can move on to a different hobby or try again in a few years.

But when education is related to your professional life (or future professional life), the stakes are much higher. Many people are deeply concerned about the course grade and GPA, even if they are in a major they like. The Penn State diploma does allow you to enter the job market with a better certification than someone with only a high school degree, and a higher GPA on that diploma opens up other opportunities.

It really is no wonder people in class focus so much on grades and not on content...especially when the course is one they are taking as a requirement and not for fun. The goal in this scenario isn't really "learn as much X as I can", but "learn just enough X to get the grade I need." An immersive activity taking many hours to master is NOT what students are looking for...even though it may be the best thing for them.

This is where educational games can class with the realer "Game of Higher Education" in which students find strategies to minimize effort for maximum output (grades). This current generation has probably still learned a bunch of cool tricks to maximize output vs effort for traditional lecture classes and either have none for new assignments like games, video production or blogging, or they realize they will take more time to do. No wonder they resist and turn to excuses like "the tech is too hard" (is it harder than Facebook? Really?)

Sucking it Up?

Since I am in ETS designing these opportunities for students, I would never advocate giving these up in the classroom. They are valuable precisely because they require more cognitive engagement than just reading the textbook. There's even a good chance that students will prefer more active assignments...once they get on board with one.

What I am advocating that we understand that a student playing a game (or shooting a video) in a class is different than doing it for fun. There may not be as much motivation to master the interface without documentation, or as much motivation to figure out a workflow plan. I do think instructors have to suck it up and provide a little more support if we want these activities to succeed.

But they can succeed, and when magic strikes a student realizes that that boring requirement is actually kind of interesting and worth putting in just a little more effort to get to the next level.

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