Monday, June 27, 2011

Searching for the Holy Grail: Games that Teach

I have long been interested in the ways in which computer and video games impact players both cognitively and emotionally, and I, like many others, have often wondered how we can mobilize these engaging tools to promote education and learning.  Yet, even today when home computers and game consoles have blossomed beyond their infancy and become a remarkably integral part of modern world, it seems that combining learning and gaming in truly productive and meaningful ways is still a long lost Holy Grail of sorts.

On July 9, 2010 the New York Times featured an article called "Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality" which disclosed some recent and rather upsetting findings about the effects of computers on children and teens in low-income homes.   Despite the family's hopes that computers would serve as educational tools for their children, children in homes that received computers for the first time scored decidedly lower on standarized tests in a variety of subjects, widening the disparity between themselves and students in more privileged socio-economic brackets.  It seems that what these children really learned from their computers were increased computer literacy and the ability to circumvent parental blocking software.

These findings raise important questions about the value of technology in the abstract, as well as prompt us to ask whether or not we are failing today's children by not finding more effective ways to tap into their interests to promote education.  Without even knowing the details of the study, I feel it safe to take for granted that the children in these studies were just as capable of learning as the more economically privileged students, evidenced in the very least by their ability to develop sufficient computer skills to circumvent protective software.  But the discovery that the computers were used almost daily to play games forces us to re-evaluate closely what motivations games offer that other more traditional forms of learning do not.

Because these students were under-privileged socio-economic groups, we can perhaps speculate that games may have had an even more powerful appeal to these students because of a greater desire for escapism.  If these students were struggling academically before computers were introduced into the home, their incentive to use the computers to learn may have been suppressed from the get-go.  Students who struggle and have come to feel that they are "just not smart" or that they will never be as capable as their classmates may have already given up on their education, or they may become frustrated with challenging assignments faster than their peers, thus turning to the computer for escape more quickly.

Still, even if their desire for escapism may be stronger, the fact that these kids willing turned to games reminds us that games, if properly exploited, can be just the tool for helping unmotivated learners.  By taking a hint from the structures of motivation employed in video games can help to both figure out how to bring these students back into fold, and help game designers figure out how to make educational software as appealing as its blockbuster, entertainment-purposes-only counterparts.

As James Paul Gee has written in his "Learning by Design: good video games as learning machines," (E-Learning 2:1) video games are amazingly successful at getting players to learn long and complex tasks in the name of gameplay.  He points to a variety of different learning mechanics employed in games that he thinks could be implemented in the classroom to at least supplement, if not entirely supplant, the rote learning that still seems to dominate the bulk of American classrooms.  Gee hints at how these methods might be implemented, and how they might help reduce the frustration of students who at some point or another begin to feel as though the are left hopelessly behind.  

But while Gee does present innovative and tantalizing ideas for the classroom, it seems that there is still a problem when it comes to getting kids to want to play educational games in the free time at home.  There still seems to be a divide between explicitly "educational" software, which often has less appeal to children than those games designed for entertainment alone.  I personally don't believe that education and entertainment are two worlds that can only rarely, if ever meet.  But in my experiences both as a gamer and as an aspiring game designer, I worry that despite the promise that gamification offers for improving conventional teaching and learning methods, the world of educational games still hasn't managed to find that sweet spot of both being desirable to play and powerful learning tools.  If it had, then perhaps the children in the study on computers in low-income homes would have been beating out their classmates in test scores and performance.

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