What if We Taught Only Through Games?

I was thinking about this while reading the Immune Attack article.

It’s interesting that we’re trying to make education fun and more like video games.  Perhaps in the future, when researchers learn new information, the information will follow a procedure where it’s made more understandable to other researchers in the field, while simultaneously being digested and integrated into existing information in order to make a (likely incomprehensible) text about the information. Later will come the comprehensible text (like Griffiths, a fantastically readable textbook introduction to electrodynamics), but perhaps at the same time, or a little bit later, there will be a game developed that teaches the information. While it’ll always be important to have texts for reference, maybe the majority of learning for students will at some point come entirely from realistic, yet stimulating games. Of course at some stage in a students education (maybe by the end of undergrad), the student would “catch up” to the digestion of the knowledge, and no longer be able to learn from games (because the complexity/newness of the information hasn’t be transformed to a game yet). At this point they would have to rely solely on texts and articles. How the student would be able to handle this is anyone’s guess. And later yet, the student will have to get a job, or do research, which will be nothing like a game. How will the students motivate themselves then? How competent will they be if they have to interact, develop, and learn with mediums other than games? I think this is somewhat analogous to what happens in late elementary school, or late middle school, when concepts aren’t taught as inventively and interactively, and you see fewer students interested in learning.

I guess this is my main concern with the idea that it would be wonderful if we could hook kids to science, or academics, by using video games. The problem of what happens when kids realize the real world isn’t a video game, and it’s not always so easy to engage oneself. Of course, this is likely a long time away, and some fix will probably come up before it ever happens. As for now, we should keep trying to make learning more engaging, because it’s just going to complement our traditional learning techniques in the near future. And that’s not bad at all.

The Narrow Sightedness of the High-Tech Heretic

Clifford Stoll brings up some interesting points in the Makes Learning Fun section of High-Tech Heretic. But more often than not, he neglects important facts, and shows remarkable short-sightedness.

“Most Learning isn’t fun. Learning takes work. Discipline” (12).

“Equating learning with fun says that if you don’t enjoy yourself, you’re not learning” (12).

Learning certainly does take work and discipline. But it should also be fun. Being challenged at the right level is fun, and when education is done right, this is what happens. Moreover, there are plenty of game-like activities in which children can learn important material. Sure, while growing up I did my homework and tried in school because my parents and teachers said it was important for my future–but I also did it because I honestly did enjoy the “work”. In 3rd grade I played shopping board games to learn math and money skills, in 4th grade I competed against my classmates to solve arithmetic problems for candy, in middle school I played typing games to learn keyboard skills, and dissected animals to learn about biology. These are all basic examples of me having a great time learning. I didn’t need to have fun in order to learn, but it sure as hell helped I don’t think I would’ve learned it better or faster by more conventional techniques. When learning is fun the discipline comes naturally–the work melts away as you get in a flow to learn the skills you care about.

“A real teacher might well ask, ‘Seven equals what?’ A fascinating question with an infinite number of answers: ‘Three plus four,’ ‘Ten minus three,’ ‘Days in a week,’ ‘The dwarfs in Snow White,’… These answers, incomprehensible to any computer, make perfect sense to a real teacher . . . ” (17).

A real teacher might well ask, “Seven equals what?”, but most teachers probably won’t. Most teachers will teach the rote “4+3=?” format, just like the software that Stoll is crusading against. Besides, Sporcle can ask “a fascinating question” like that given by Stoll.I know he wrote the book in 1999, but could he not see the potential of computer programs? The simple programming behind Sporcle games was certainly doable in 1999.

“Motivation–the will to move–comes from yourself. You choose what puts you in motion and causes you to move. Computers cause you to sit in one place and not move” (19).

Computers cause countless people to get motivated. Most people have at one time or another asked themselves, how does this magic box that is a computer even work? That very question can motivate someone to learn science, or do research to learn more about these important tools. And guess what Stoll? You could do all this research on a computer. You could practice building a virtual computer on a computer. Even before google gained popularity, electronic encyclopedias allowed access to information much faster than print volumes. Computers cause you to sit and one place and not move no more than reading a book, or doing traditional homework.

“The field of educational technology is filled with such empty cliches…Student-centered learning will be tutor-led and context-based rather than rote plug-and-chug. Child-centered classrooms. Blah, blah, blah” (19).

Wow. Just wow. Could you make me take you any less seriously, Stoll? You defend plug-and-chug and follow it up by saying blah blah blah to the alternatives? I want to think you’re trolling in order to make people realize how stupid it is to close your eyes to the benefits of new innovative teaching methods, but I don’t give you that much credit.

“Teachers need only open a closet door to find stacks of obsolete unused teaching gizmos: filmstrips, instructional television systems, Apple II computers, and any number of educational videotapes. Each promised a revolution in the classroom. None delivered” (21).

Yeah, because most teaching material gets used every day of the school year (/sarcasm). Secondary school physics teachers pull out their Bill Nye videos as often as they do their tuning forks, but tuning forks aren’t being burned at the stake. I’d also like a pull a few more examples from my (what I consider) successful education. I competed with my classmates to get the high score in number munchers and word munchers on the macintosh in our 2nd grade classroom. I also practice writing stories on little keyboard computers (with 3 lines of screen space) that my elementary school had. I consider both experiences beneficial to me. And if you expect pieces of technology that a school buys not to get outdated, you’re crazy. That doesn’t mean the old stuff stops working though.

“Doubtless, even the worst teacher is more versatile and adaptable than the finest computer program. Come to think of it, aren’t teachers interactive? It’s hard to think of a classroom without interaction” (21).

I respectfully disagree that the worst teacher is more versatile and adaptable than the finest computer program. Even a computer program from 1999 (Hell- Rollercoaster Tycoon, Half-Life, Age of Empires II, System Shock II, Shenmue, and Baulder’s Gate were all out by year’s end). I just thought of a classroom without interaction. It’s called a lecture.

“Famous scientists–and obscure ones, too–don’t have time to answer email from distant students” (22). “Astronomers who enjoy working with kids would far prefer to meet the kids, not answer a slew of messages over the net. That inquiring mind directed to the net will likely dead-end in some press release or a mountain of indecipherable jargon” (22).

I bet if I asked Stoll if sending a hand written, physical letter to a scientist were a good idea, he’d be elated. Guess what? Scientists love that they can get people interested in their studies without having to spend more than a few minutes or the cost of postage to do so. And then the scientist realized they could save more time and get MORE people interested if they answered the questions on a web site that ANYONE could access, not just the single person asking the question. These kind of FAQs definitely existed in 1999.

“To turn learning into fun is to denigrate the two most important things we can do as humans: To teach. To learn” (22)

The only thing I can say to this is: Stoll, you’re a narrow-sighted grinch.

What Universities Should Emphasize and How Video Games are Ahead of the Curve

I just read an interesting article in The Times, written by the President of Harvard, about University Education.


The Author hypothesizes how universities should change to reflect what are now the most important skills to have in the 21st century. Here is a summary (mostly verbatim from the article) of the changes he talks about:

  1.  Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it.
  2. An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration.
  3. New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed.
  4. We understand the processes of human thought much better than we once did. Not everyone learns most effectively in the same way. Classrooms need to be more about “Active Learning”.
  5.  The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before. This makes it essential that the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism — that students have international experiences, and classes in the social sciences draw on examples from around the world.
  6. Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data.

I believe that video games play an important role in bringing eduction into the 21st century, because they often seamlessly incorporate aspects of these issues, or by their very nature do what academia needs to do.

Video games by their very nature are “Active Learning” (point 4), because of reasons we’ve talked about like being able to react to the player instantly and scale to the appropriate level of challenge.

But games also teach us about information processing (point 1). Most video games now have elaborate worlds containing thousands of different buildings, people and objects. However, the player can usually only interact with a fraction of each of these things. In playing a game, it is not necessarily important (or even possible) to know specifically what you can and can’t interact with. The important thing is knowing how to recognize what is user accessible, whether you’ve seen the specific thing or not. In the simplest example, in the game Mirror’s Edge everything that can be used for certain parkour moves is the color red. A more complex example can be seen in Skyrim. The world is covered in grasses and mushrooms and plants, but only some can be picked to be used as ingredients. There are also booby-traps that can harm your player. Knowing that ingredients and traps have unique characteristics differentiating them from their surroundings let’s you focus on things other than testing out every floortile or plants accessibility.

Collaboration is evident in the boom of multiplayer opportunities available to gamers today (point 2). Most players nowadays play games solely for their multiplayer aspect, for which it is always better to cooperate than not. Everything from playing the Halo campaign cooperatively with three friends, to playing a 12 vs. 12 domination match in Call of Duty, to organizing guilds in WoW requires collaboration–and teaches it in fun way to boot. The aspects required by this collaboration, often including people from all over the world, can also increase knowledge among cultures (point 5) (but the potential is often squandered on name calling).

Wow, this is a long post. Ok, well, that was a few of the changes important for education and how they relate to gaming. If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations.

The Main character Who Died and Never Came Back to Life

On page 79 Gee compares movies and video games, noting that in video games the character you’re playing as cannot die and stay dead, or else “the game would be over before its ‘ending’”, whereas in a book or movie the character can stay dead, causing considerable sadness or other emotions. However, I’d like to contest the notion that video games are exempt from this.

In perhaps my favorite game of the past decade, the main character is murdered near the end of the main story. Because this is an open world game, which does not “end” per say, the player is now forced to play as the son of the main character. While Gee denies this possibility of the death of a main character, at the same time he expounds upon the importance of projective identities (p.63), and the impact that virtual identities can have on real world identities.

Indeed—I was terribly impacted by this death my virtual identity. Although the son has the exact same in-game abilities as the father, I completely lost the will to play upon the main characters death. It’s not that there was nothing left to do in my game world. There were still side missions I had yet to complete, and the gameplay was the exact same as it had been moments before the death, yet now that I could not adventure as the virtual identity I had shaped through my projective identity, I had no will to play.

However, I do not think that this ruined the game. In fact, I think this was the most brilliant part of the game. Never before had I been so attached to the character I was playing as, and killing off the virtual identity I had helped shape through all my hours of play made me realize that even more so. Up until that death, I had never felt sorrow from playing a game like I had from reading a good book or watching a good film.

This game convinced me that video games are ready to be as deep or rich as film or literature, and that it’s possible to create strong emotional feelings for a virtual character. Moreover, it demonstrates that games CAN annihilate main characters without the game “ending.” And though I was unmotivated to invest myself into a new virtual identity, perhaps other players see this as an opportunity to start fresh and see the world through someone else’s eyes.