George Lucas Educational Foundation
Game-Based Learning

The Games Pupils Play

October 19, 2009

There comes a time in every parent's life -- and in most teachers' lives, too -- when we discover that those we are raising and teaching are better at certain things than we are.

Case in point: Many years before my son began casually blocking my best basketball shots, I had bought him a handheld Space Invaders digital game, a primordial ancestor of the remarkable video games that exist today. The concept was simple -- flights of alien spaceships descended from the top of the small screen to the bottom, and the job of the threatened Earthling was to destroy them before they completed their flight.

When my son wasn't around, I practiced playing the game, and felt that I was getting pretty good. As I recall, I had moved up to level two, heading eventually (I hoped) for five, the master level. When my son played, however, he quickly leaped up to level four. And he was only seven.

One day, while he was watching me play, he said, "Dad, I think you're missing the patterns."

I was stunned. There were patterns? I had been convinced that the alien ships were launched against me in completely random waves. The kid, however, had figured out the various patterns -- and how to recognize each instantly -- the first few times he played. He was a natural chaos theorist.

My son is now a criminal defense attorney and an expert on eyewitness testimony (which he has written about for, and, frankly, I'm not surprised.

Why am I telling this mildly Oedipal story of domestic domination? Because as up-to-date teachers know and I (neither a teacher nor particularly up-to-date) am discovering, video games are considered by many to be the next big thing in education. A recent article in the Economist describes Katie Salen, a games designer and professor at Parsons The New School for Design, in New York City, who recently opened Quest to Learn, a publicly funded school in that city that will teach entirely through games. (See also this video interview with Salen.)

The article describes how, at Quest to Learn, 90-minute "domains" will replace the familiar blocks of subject study. For instance, Being, Space, and Place will teach English and social studies. "Pupils take on the role of an ancient Spartan who has to assess Athenian strengths and recommend a course of action," the article states. "In doing so, they learn bits of history, geography, and public policy."

Should those pupils ever find themselves in a war with ancient Athens, they will be well prepared. Otherwise, the curriculum seems somewhat underwhelming. Is this the virtual pathway to Arcade High, or an essential approach to reinvigorating the classic chalk-and-talk method that has shaped the classroom dynamic for a couple hundred years?

Of course, the old paradigm has been changing for quite a while now, led not only by technology but also by the growing importance of project learning, both core concepts of The George Lucas Educational Foundation. And creative, interactive video games like the intriguing simulacrums of The Sims, the ingenious gene pools of Spore, and the avatars of Second Life have been around for quite a while.

But let it be noted that Salen, the theorist behind Quest to Learn, is a game designer. She's also a college professor, but -- and I'm guessing here -- I somehow doubt that she's ever stood before a middle school class and taken on the challenge of imparting important knowledge that may be long on difficulty and short on fun.

My guess is that however cool technology becomes, however much of it provides the shape of pedagogic things to come, there will always be teachers standing in front of students -- or sitting with them at screens -- passing on what they have learned to those who need to learn it too. Education is not all games, and teachers will, I hope, never be mere facilitators of tech whose only job is to monitor kids immersed in virtual school.

I'm sure there may be much to be gained by using games, if those games are carefully crafted. After all, many students today are veteran gamers. But who will be making the decisions about which games teach, and which games merely seem to teach?

As psychologists have shown, anything that moves on a screen will capture people's attention, so student involvement is not a trustworthy measure of effectiveness. I'm just speculating here, but any educator over 40 (the Pong generation) probably isn't going to be very good at assessing the value of games for the World of Warcraft generation.

An education system dominated by games may change the balance in classrooms -- power may shift from living teachers to game designers, and from students who are adept at abstract thinking to those better at doing things, even virtual things.

Ideally, a good game curriculum will help the nonmathematical student grapple with numbers and the linguistically challenged to navigate the terra incognita of the subjunctive. But, as I learned from my son long ago, some people are good at games and some aren't, just as some students are natural athletes and some struggle on the playing field.

Will game learning create a new elite group, just when teachers work so hard to get everyone involved and educated?

In Herman Hesse's novel The Glass Bead Game, where a vastly complex cultural game becomes the ultimate measure of superiority, this is pretty much what happens. I've noticed more than a few times that dedicated gamers, with their alpha-dog winning-is-the-only-thing competitiveness, can be a pain to deal with in real-life social and working situations -- the kind of office politicians who would just as soon see others fail as help a project succeed.

Or will the spectrum of educational games allow those of us who don't see the patterns comprehend a rich universe of learning that chalk on the blackboard never showed us?

In other words, can teachers teach game designers how to teach? Please comment on this idea, and others shared in this blog post.

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