My conversation with a gaming master

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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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Rare is the day that I am referred to as a "gaming master". I think I'm going to have to change my business cards!

In regards to your response, I most certainly appreciate what you are saying and I would be curious to know whether or not such sentiment is prevalent among your peers (or among students for that matter). If so, its a notion that groups like the EGC are going to have to work hard to dispel.

For me, "teacher proofing" an educational game experience is about making the game work "for" any instructor, rather than the game working without one - the idea being that you shouldnt have to be a teacher who moonlights as a professional gamer to use a video game successfully in the classroom. I believe that video games can have a major impact on education, but even being the obsessive that I am, it would be folly to assume that a game could ever replace the intangible things that a good instructor can do. Nor should they.

Looking back at the email I sent you, I suppose I should also clarify myself. I think that video games can be an extremely engaging way to support education, but thats not to say that they are more engaging than a good instructor. I can still remember, nearly verbatim, the best lectures I've ever attended - some of which amounted to little more than a teacher and some chalk. Games don't represent a better way to engage students, just a different way. And in that difference there is an opportunity to engage a different group, a group that might not gravitate towards or appreciate the traditional.

A few years ago I was visiting some family over the summer and one of my younger cousins happened to be playing Call of Duty 1 - a shooter game set during World War 2. While he was playing we were talking and I asked him what sort of stuff he was doing in school. As he went down the list of his favorite subjects, I decided to ask him about History (seeing as how he was playing a history themed game). I'll never forget his response: "dude history is lame and boring"... as he was playing through the Battle of Stalingrad. As it turned out, he knew a lot more about history than he realized, it had just been given to him from actions on a screen instead of words on page. There was nothing wrong with his history teacher (I don't think) nor was there anything wrong with the history textbooks he was learning from. But they didnt connect with him. So who was really loosing out in that scenario? Obviously my cousin was, but you could just as easily argue that the study of history was also missing an opportunity to engage a future student, hobbyist, or contributor to the field.

I think you make a great point about the nature of "the next great thing" when it comes to technology and learning. But then there were great teachers before there were disruptive technologies. There were great teachers before studio code and there were most certainly great teachers before games. These things are all just tools and no matter how flashy, exciting, or cool they look, that is all they will ever be. And as is the case with tools, they don't do much of anything on their own. But in the hands of the right person... well thats a different story entirely.


You got me with the studiocode piece at the end.

I don't know if my attitude is typical of my peers, but I do think that there is an implicit message that serious game designers send, perhaps without knowing it. You can even see it in your comment about your cousin. History (or at least that particular history teacher) was lame (in his estimation). The solution - a first person shooter about WWII. I am oversimplifying what you said to make a point. And I don't think it is as much about the teacher as it is about the interaction around the game. If your cousin is going to learn anything meaningful (e.g. history of WWII) then he needs to engage in a conversation with someone who can help him contextualize the experiences that he had in the game into a meaningful, real world context. Without that he is just playing a first person shooter that happens to be set in Stalingrad. That conversation does not have to be with a teacher, but it does have to be with someone who knows something about history.

I agree with your overall point, that games are just a tool in a good teachers' repertoire. Just like a book requires a conversation (often) for a student to really get a rich understanding of it, a game does too. What worries me a little is that as computers become more sophisticated it seems that their is an implicit belief that they can be both the tool and the conversation.

As a veteran high school English teacher, turned technology-training professional (and gamer), I can't resist weighing in here:

Technology does not replace quality teaching, but quality teachers think creatively about ways they can immerse their students into their subject areas. In the K-12 arena, my colleagues may have students dress in character, create posters, or write short fiction or poems to this end. With technology in their classrooms, they have students create podcasts, videos, newsletters, Websites, blogs, and presentations.

Gaming in education is not new. From my own junior high years, I remember playing The Oregon Trail and a space blobs game in Algebra where you'd zap the blobs with linear equations. Granted, these weren't the best games in the world, and back in my day computes were what sat in the back of the classroom for the first person who finished with his or her work, but today's games could offer much, much richer experiences.

The problem comes when someone thinks the computer is a replacement for teaching, like television as a substitute for parenting. No magic tool will do the work of a good educator or turn a bad educator into a quality teacher, but I wouldn't deny a tool from a quality teacher's arsenal just because others may wield it incorrectly.

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