Friday, August 3, 2012

Video Game Curriculum? The Love to Learn Edition

I was asked to speak about video games and unschooling at the 2012 Love to Learn Conference.  This is an expansion of my previous blog on the educational merits of video games.  However, this post is merely a repost of my presentation slides.  For this reason, it might not flow as well as my other writing, or it may seem like some information is missing.  I hope it provides adequate information for those who were not able to make it to the conference but wanted to know more on the topic.

My child plays video games all day.  How will she ever learn anything?

nFirst ask yourself what you want your child to learn.  Are you concerned with content or the ability to reason and solve problems?  Do you see children as empty vessels or tabula rasas which we must fill with information, or do you see them as creative individuals capable of constructing their own set of knowledge?
nIf you, like John Dewey and other constructivists, see humans as “observers, participants, and agents who actively generate and transform the patterns through which they construct the realities that fit them,” then rest assured that your child is getting a much better education through her video games than she would in a classroom.
nIf you, like B F Skinner, are a behaviorist and believe the role of education is the transmission of a core set of knowledge from the teacher to the student, then your educational goals will probably be best met by the public education system rather than video games.

The Problem of Content
Or Constuctivism vs. Behaviorism

nStudies have shown that many college students who have passed their first physics class with excellent grades and can recite Newton’s laws of motion often fail to answer a simple question based on these laws of motion: “How many forces are acting on a coin that has been thrown up into the air?”
nThese “A” students claim that two forces are acting on the coin: gravity and the initial force of the toss.  Aside from the friction of the air, there is actually only one force acting on the coin while it is in the air: gravity.
nWhen the educational focus is on content the child is left with a lot of useless trivia that he cannot apply in any useful way.

What exactly is my child learning when he plays video games?

nSome skills a child learns while playing games are fairly obvious, such as reading, basic mathematics, map reading, resource management, economics, etc.
nSome games, such as BoomBlox and Tiger Woods Golf, incorporate physics into the game play.
nSome games, such as Age of Empires and the Total War series, are based on actual historical characters and events.
nSimulation games, such as The Sims and Civilization, use the same types of modeling that are used by real scientists.
MMO’s, such as WOW, LOTRO, and SW:TOR require a high level of teamwork and cooperation in order to be successful in the game.  In addition, these games usually require you to fill out applications and interview in order to be accepted into a guild.
nEvery well designed game teaches the scientific method.  The player encounters a new obstacle.  The player forms a hypothesis about how to get past the obstacle.  The player tests the hypothesis.  If the hypothesis is true, the player moves on.  If the hypothesis is false, the player forms a new hypothesis and then tests that hypothesis.
nWell designed video games also encourage goal setting.  Each player can make his own goals and define success on his own terms.
nIn order to know exactly what your child is learning from a particular game you either need to play the game yourself or watch your child play the game.  You have to look past the obvious skills and think about what other learning may be occurring.  This is true of all media – including books.

Learning Principles

n“Good video games incorporate good learning principles, principles supported by current research in Cognitive Science (Gee 2003, 2004). Why? If no one could learn these games, no one would buy them—and players will not accept easy, dumbed down, or short games. At a deeper level, however, challenge and learning are a large part of what makes good video games motivating and entertaining. Humans actually enjoy learning, though sometimes in school you wouldn’t know that.” – Dr. James Paul Gee

So what are these “good learning principles?” (From Dr. James Paul Gee – see For Further Reading)

nIdentity – “No deep learning takes place unless learners make an extended commitment of self for the long haul. Learning a new domain … requires the learner to take on a new identity” (Gee).  Games encourage the player to become committed to a new identity.
nInteraction – Games are interactive.  Nothing happens until the player acts.  Then they provide immediate feedback and new challenges.
nProduction – Gamers are producers that create their game experience through the actions they take.
nRisk taking – The consequences for failure are lowered.  The player is encouraged to take risks, and failure is often encouraged as a way to learn.
nCustomization – Players can often customize their game experience to meet their needs and ability levels.
nAgency – Players have a sense of control and ownership of their experience.
nWell-Ordered Problems – In good video games, problems are ordered so that earlier problems will lead players toward hypotheses that will help with later problems.
nChallenge and Consolidation – Good games give the player a set of challenging problems and lets him work on these problems until they have become routine.  Then the game throws the player a new challenge that causes him to rethink the strategy.
n“Just in Time” and “On Demand” – Good video games provide just the information that is needed when it is needed.
nSituated Meanings – Words have different meanings in different situations. “Games always situate the meanings of words in terms of the actions, images, and dialogues they relate to, and show how they vary across different actions, images and dialogues. They don’t just offer words for words” (Gee)
nPleasantly Frustrating – Good games provide just the right level of challenge – a state which is highly motivational for learners.
nSystem Thinking – “Games encourage players to think about relationships, not isolated events, facts, and skills” (Gee).   Players must think about how each action might impact future actions.
nExplore, Think Laterally, Rethink Goals – Linear thinking is often punished in good video games.  Lateral thinking is the type of thinking that is critical in today’s workforce.
nSmart Tools and Distributed Knowledge – In a video game, the virtual character is a tool and game knowledge is distributed between real people and virtual characters.  This is a key characteristic of the modern workplace.
nCross-Functional Teams – Often players must master one set of skills and learn how to coordinate that specialty with other players. This, too, is a component of the modern workforce.
nPerformance Before Competence – Due to supports, both in the game and in the gaming community, players can adequately perform before they are actually competent.

Won’t violent video games cause my child to become more violent?

nAccording to federal crime statistics, juvenile crime in the US is at a 30 year low (PBS, Eight Myths).
nChildren know the difference between fantasy and reality.  Studies have linked exposure to real life violence to more real life violence.  However, there is no proven link between imaginary violence and real life violence.
nClaiming that performing violent acts in a video game will lead to violent acts in real life is akin “to the claim that because I have planted lots of corn in Harvest Moon I will run out and plant corn in my back yard – in reality we have as little real corn from Harvest Moon as we have real killings from Grand Theft Auto” (Gee)
nPlaying violent games and watching violent movies does not desensitize us to real life violence.  Witnessing a violent crime in real life is still traumatic regardless of how many virtual crimes one has watched in various media.

What about games with “Mature” ratings?

nAs with all media, you must judge what your child is ready to handle.
nA child who is mature enough to play Halo may not be able to handle a similar game like Left 4 Dead or Resident Evil due to the manner in which the enemy is depicted.
nGames such as Dues Ex offer a level of moral ambiguity that mirrors the real world.  Sometimes the “good guys” aren’t really all that good.
nGames like Grand Theft Auto allow the player to experiment with morality in a way that would be unacceptable in the real world.  The player has the opportunity to determine what kind of thug he will be.
nThese types of games offer learning experiences that one can not have outside of the virtual world.  For example, in a game, you can kill someone and then later learn that you were on the wrong side of the battle. 

Aren’t video games socially isolating? (Statistics from PBS, Myths)

nAlmost 60% of frequent gamers play with friends
n33% play with siblings
n25% play with spouses or parents
nEven single player games are often played socially.  One player may hold the controller while multiple people collaborate over what the virtual character should do.
nAdditionally, gamers are members of vast online communities which participate in dialogues on many topics – not just video games.  The friendships created in the virtual world often extend to the real world through guild meet-ups and video game conventions such as E3 and PAX.

But I can’t get her to do anything else… I wish she would read more books.

nAt one time, parents made the same laments concerning novels that we hear today concerning video games.
n'Diana, you might take Anne out into the garden and show her your flowers. It will be better for you than straining your eyes over that book. She reads entirely too much' - this to Marilla as the little girls went out - 'and I can't prevent her, for her father aids and abets her. She's always pouring over a book. I'm glad she has the prospect of a playmate - perhaps it will take her more out-of-doors.' (Anne of Green Gables, Ch 12)
n'I think this story-writing business is the foolishest yet,' scoffed Marilla. 'You'll get a pack of nonsense into your heads and waste time that should be put on your lessons. Reading stories is bad enough but writing them in worse.' (Anne of Green Gables, Ch 26)

Imagine if video games had been invented before books…

n“Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying—which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical sound-scapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on the page....
nBooks are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children....
nBut perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you....
nThis risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one.”
(Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You)

How can I help my kids get the most out of their gaming experience?

nPlay the games yourself – How else will you be able to have a meaningful conversation with your child about the games? “Not learning how to play games would be akin to talking about The Lord of the Flies without having learned to read” (PBS, Literacy).
nWhen you converse with your children, relate the games to real world experiences and other media.  By doing this “we can cultivate pattern recognition across media platforms and parlay the problem-solving of gaming into the real world” (PBS, Literacy).
nEncourage your children to collaborate with others. “There has been a raft of research in recent years that extols the wisdom of the crowd and the logic of the swarm. Through collaboration and networking kids can learn to enhance their own perspectives, ideas and, perhaps, contribute to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts” (PBS, Literacy).

For Further Reading

nDr. James Paul Gee:  Publications


  1. Nice!

    There are no "violent video games." Kids are sitting on a couch in their parents' home pushing buttons on a remote control. That's not hurting them or anyone else. (Or young adults are home sitting and pushing buttons, instead of being out drinking or vandalizing something.)

    In every single case of real-life violence anyone can think of, wouldn't it have been better if the perpetrator had been home on the couch than out causing trouble? :-)

  2. Really enjoyed this from a personal perspective it illustrates to me how far my own thoughts have travelied.

    My trio are really into Moshi Monsters atm and I have an account too. I really endorse your views on joining in, it has transformed the experience for me.

  3. Loved that post! So very true yet difficult to convince the anti-gamers of this. I always use that analogy about how people used to view books. it's a great one but I love the Anne of Green Gables quote. That hits the nail right on the head:) Thanks so much.