April 2008 Archives

Recently I had a hallway conversation about "serious games" with a man who takes games seriously.  Chris Stubbs, an affiliate of the Educational Gaming Commons here at PSU was that man.  I told him that one of the worries that I have about the use of games in educational environments is that games are designed to have (relatively) low thresholds of frustration compared to the world at large.  What I mean is that you might have to struggle with part of a game for hours to complete a task, but the game is designed for you to be able to complete the task, and is even optimized to have that task be frustration enough to keep you engaged without being so hard that you loose interest.  My point (and I don't believe it to be a new one) was that this can lead to a reduction in students threshold of persistence (this is not an empirically tested claim, just a working hypothesis).  So by motivating students with games we may actually do long term disservice to their ability to solve / struggle with real problems that are not as clean.

Being a thoughtful and intelligent fellow, Mr. Stubbs sent me an email afterwards that responded thusly:


So games lack the complexity and the difficulty of many real world tasks.  As you pointed out, education can be very difficult at times and that is not a complexity that games can easily match.  But why should they?  If you look at a video game as a tool in the educational tool box of an instructor (as opposed to a replacement to existing teaching methods) then what harm is there in its simplicity?  In fact, the lack of relative complexity or difficulty is what  could potentially open doors or spark interest from people who might otherwise have been turned off by a particular topic or field.  In this way, I suppose you could think of them like good marketing materials.  They can help get students engaged or excited about learning, but it will still be up to traditional teaching methods to take them the rest of the way.  In my opinion games can teach to a point, but I think their greater value is in the interactivity and the enthusiasm they can spark.  "Use them for what they are good at, not for everything" would probably be the simplest way of putting it.

I sent him a response, but then thought putting it all up on a blog post might open the conversation to my many readers to comment.  Or at least we can continue the conversation in a more public place in case anyone is actually interested.  So, here are my further thoughts:

I agree with your general point.  I guess the thing that worries me about games (and serious games in particular) is they are frequently seen as both "teacher-proof" and "teacher-replacements".  I don't think games are evil, but I also don't think that they teach in the absence of a pedagogical framework that can (often) only be provided by a teacher.  The history of technology in education is that every new (new) thing is taken to be the salvation of schools because it will get kids fired up about learning.  Inevitably this turns out to be wrong, but onward to the next savior technology that will gets kids jumping up and down to learn.  It is a bad cycle and makes cynics out of teachers very quick.  When you tell someone that the only way that people will be interested in what you do is if you let them play games while you do it, it is not much consolation that they will enjoy the games.

Back in your court Mr. Stubbs (or maybe we can turn this into four square if there are a couple other interested parties out there). 

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