Spinach

Continuing the topic from yesterday – which again comes out of lots of interesting conversations with Jan Plass and other colleagues – the question always comes up of whether the potential educational benefits of games for learning might run into the coolness problem: kids may not want to play a game that’s supposed to be “good for them”. If you give middle school kids a game that’s really fun, but by playing it they know that they are actually doing math homework, would this awkward fact make the game so uncool that it is actually no longer fun?

Yet how could things be worse than the way they are now? Standard practice today is to give kids ages eleven through thirteen lots of boring homework exercises to hone their math skills. It’s hard to argue that the current approach is the optimal way to win their hearts and minds, or to show them that math can be fun and exciting. The same material covered via well-designed game play could hardly be any worse for motivating learning than the current status quo. In fact, there is every reason to think it would be better.

But still, I am reminded of that wonderful 1928 New Yorker cartoon drawn by Carl Rose and captioned by E.B. White:



Old E.B. hit the nail right on the head, didn’t he? Kids know. Kids always know.

So how will this play out? Can games make education more relevant and fun? Or will kids merely look at games in education as a surreptitious attempt to make them eat their vegetables? On the other hand, if our educational system embraces game play properly then perhaps school itself may come to seem a lot cooler.

4 Responses to “Spinach”

  1. I think the things videogames are currently good at teaching are not the same things being tested for in school. For example, I learned a lot about cities from playing SimCity. I read news about cities very differently than I would if I hadn’t played the game. But what course tests you on urban management skills?
    Here’s an article about a medieval educational game called Rithmomachia.
    http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2002/9/18/01924/0267

  2. Marc says:

    I think games do become uncool when they are trying too hard to teach something. I feel a game has to hide its educational aspects as much as possible to be successful, and also avoid sacrificing gameplay over educational benefits. On the other hand games may just provide the motivation to learn, not the learning tool itself: isn’t that how most of us learn the best, by actually being curious about a subject? I did become interested in mythology after seeing so many references to it in RPGs.

  3. Nate says:

    Nearly everything I know about mythology, I’ve learned through video games. Sword and magic – style fantasy games continually draw on mythical creatures, ancient gods, ancient theologies (earth, wind, fire, water), philosophy, etc, etc. I’ve come to the conclusion that by drawing on references such as that, the player is given room to bring his/her experiences and knowledge to the table, allowing a big gain for a small cost. While I might not know or understand all of the lore involving the phoenix, the information vital to the story is presented to me (it is rare, and rebirths upon its death), and the rest is left for me to have prior knowledge of. Due to multiple games including phoenix’s, I was able to piece together a relatively solid understanding of just what a phoenix is, and that information was relevant to my studies later on in high school.

    Ironically, while the game designer’s intention was to relate to my previous education and experiences using a common mythical creature, due to my youthful video game experiences, it was the education that related to my video games.
    Certainly players can be exposed to many aspects of education in a game that is still cool, and possibly even cooler for having them. Philosophy, mythology, anything theoretical and apart from what most consider the real world. But can a player be exposed to everything educational and still consider it cool? Possibly, but in implementation, doubtful.
    You mentioned yourself that tic-tac-toe has a very low intrinsic limitation. I felt the same way with arithmetic. Sure, it was fun when I was in 3rd grade and memorizing my multiplication tables, but even games could only take it so far. Once I had developed a solid mastery of it, I needed to move on to something more difficult. You might, however, be able to control the interest if you changed the game mechanics at this pivotal moment. Perhaps rather than a laser pistol that requires correct arithmetic to be charged, the player needs to diffuse bombs by solving for y. Or maybe the player is trying to make sound bartering deals using fractions and proportions.
    Another aspect of games is the too-close to home factor. Most commonly I play games in an attempt to escape real life, or to do something that I could never actually do, like slaying a dragon or web-slinging through the streets of New York. If games come too close to home, I don’t like playing them. Being from a prominent hunting community, I find little pleasure in any of the deer-hunting simulations or the fishing simulations. I also do not enjoy Call of Duty 4. Absolutely amazing game. It’s so real, you feel like you’re actually fighting the war. But that’s exactly the problem. I feel like I’m actually fighting the war… the game makes me sick, to be completely honest. I might add a third axis to your game vehicle drawing. Make a vertically-slanted Z axis (perpendicular to the narrative, but not perpendicular to the intrinsic) that includes the realism of the game. The closer to reality, the more history and political circumstances the player learns, which is independent of the ‘leveling up’ of the character and of the narrative construct.
    There will always be some youths who refuse to eat their vegetables, but with crafty incentives, most can be tricked into learning for the sake of fun. And I would expect, the more crafty the incentives, the more that can be swayed. After all, I didn’t start to DDR for my health.

  4. Mark Guzdial says:

    The downside of education through games, it seems to me, is that not everybody likes games. The most optimistic estimates I’ve read say that 50% of the public now plays video or computer games. I happen to be in that *other* 50%, so I wonder where people like me fit into an education around gaming.

    Do we know *which* 50% likes gaming, and thus, might be impacted by efforts to teach through gaming? If it’s the top-50%, the 50% of the kids who already do well in school, then gaming-for-learning seems like a lot of effort for a non-existent problem.

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