Monday, September 5, 2011

"Mindful" Games and Social Learning

As games increasingly become the focus of educational research, the divide between "entertainment-based" games and "educational" games in video and computer game analysis seems to grow more and more blurry all the time.  Even the idea of the gamification of classrooms is gaining traction as a powerful new teaching technique.1  Yet, in terms of game development and marketing, it appears as though there is still a staunch divide between games that are designed primarily as entertainment and those that are designed to educate. In recent years, it is rare to see a game expressly labeled as educational become a bestseller or have the same market share as a first-person shooter like Halo or Call of Duty.  Sadly, it seems that most self-described hardcore gamers seem to have no incentive to seek out "educational" games, and those looking for a game with the explicit promise of educational content often find the choices and quality of these games to be much more limited.

However, as certain industry giants like Gabe Newell have pointed out, dichotomizing games as falling  into either the category of educational or entertainment can often create an artificial distinction: even commercial, entertainment-driven games can contain educational content.  Although Newell was referring specifically to the spacial skills and implicit learning of physics that players pick up when playing his team's recent blockbuster, Portal 2, the truth is that all games teach players something.  At the very least, players must quickly learn the basic rules of the game world and game play.  That is, they must be able to figure out 1) what constitutes success or in the game and 2) how to manipulate their character/avatar in the game in order to achieve success.  Of course, understanding the basic principles behind success is not the same as mastering the game--this often requires much practice, as well as trial and error.  But practice and trial and error are the primary methods of learning we employ every day.  Games are engaging, addictive even, precisely because they put our brains into a reward-driven problem-solving mode.  In essence, there is no such thing as a wholly "mindless" game.

But to say that there is no such thing as a truly "mindless" game does not mean that all games are necessarily "mindful."  It is true that in many games, the learning involved may rarely go beyond learning the basic conditions for success in the game, and those conditions may be ultimately quite trivial.  For example, success may be measured by how quickly a level is completed, an obstacle course travailed.  Or success may be measured by the number of in-game items of certain type collected, or enemies dispatched.  But many games implicitly make much deeper arguments about how the real world works or should work through the gameplay itself. I won't delve too deeply into this idea here--Ian Bogost has already written an excellent book on analyzing the arguments inherent in the processes of playing a game, and most of my reviews are intended to bring such arguments to the forefront.  Rather my point at the moment is to highlight the fact that that many games which are not explicitly "educational" nonetheless do contain messages about the real world, and they present players with arguments for or against performing certain actions in the real world.  Such games, I prefer to refer to as mindful rather than educational.  Categorizing games as being primarily for entertainment versus educational purposes no longer seems to me to be an especially useful dichotomy for talking about today's games.  Games that teach something about the real world and games that don't almost always share qualities of being both entertaining and educational.  It is a poor game indeed that neither entertains us, nor teaches us the very basic rules of play!  All games must have both some educational and entertainment value.

I know I'm no better at escaping this dichotomy than others--after all, this site is dedicated to reviewing these so-called "educational games," and I myself often validate the distinction between educational and entertaining games when I make disclaimers that describe a particular game as not being "overtly" educational.  My rationale for preserving such traditional distinctions is largely derived from a desire of being charitable to game developers.  Developers who make a game with the sole purpose of entertaining others may find it unsettling to find the arguments that their game's mechanics make implicitly (and possibly unintentionally) exposed and critiqued. Nevertheless, I feel it is important to put the category of mindfulness on the table, both to give readers a sense of why I review some games as "educational" which seem to belie that traditional label, and to give encouragement to developers to think about what their games may be saying even if they never intended for them to be expressly pedagogical.

I believe that mindful games will be the future of good educational game development precisely because they attempt do more than teach players conventional learning like history, math or languages--mindful games can also teach more abstract things like values, critical thinking, perspective, and empathy.  This kind of social learning, which seems to be increasingly difficult to cultivate in the digital age, is equally important as more conventional topics of education.  Games almost all have some kind of fundamental role-playing aspects to them, and they therefore have incredible potential to foster thinking that goes beyond the current expectations for educational games.  It is my hope that we will soon see more game reviewers looking critically at the ways in which our games, overtly educational and otherwise, teach players about the world, and that in so doing, more game developers will feel encouraged to consider how they might make their next games mindful games.

1 By this I mean simply incorporating elements of game design in explicitly non-gaming contexts.  The idea isn't especially new in education studies, but it's gaining new force in the world of education with the development of the Institute of Play and Quest to Learn schools. I know that "gamification," has become of bit of buzzword and has drawn the ire of some notable detractors.

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