Get a (Day) Job!!: Games and Research
As most of you know, I am on sabbatical this semester and working on a new games and learning project. As always it is difficult to force myself to sit down and write (in a scholarly way) what it is that I find myself arguing here, at conferences, and anywhere else that someone will stand still long enough for me to argue. But I do have to accept the fact that I do have a day job and that this job makes it necessary that I take up this endeavor. So this week I am working a bit on my intro for the project and laying down the framework so that I don’t ramble the way that I generally do on the podcast and it goes (in part) a little something like this.
Despite the fact that learning through play is something that we begin in infancy, until fairly recently we have done everything possible to keep “play” out of the classroom. Even in the years where there were educational games in school these games were never a part of the curriculum and were not widely used. Now that we are in a time when 17% of 5-8 year old children play videogames every day, 67% of children own a home console, 24% of them own a handheld system, and boys are only slightly more likely to be gamers than girls (56% and 46% respectively) we find ourselves facing a new generation of learners who are used to learning on their own through game mechanics and mechanism (Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America). This learning experience is producing a generation of students who learn differently from previous generations. These are students who can benefit more from the use of games for educational purposes than they may be able to even from textbooks and “skills and drills” methods. And this is not to say that there have not been some popular edutainment games in the past. Many of us have fond memories of playing games like Oregon Trail, Math Blaster, and even Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing when we were children, but how many of us would have chosen to play those games over King’s Quest, Donkey Kong, or Pac Man? The later games where simply more fun…more engaging and they were the ones that we would have spent more time playing (all things being equal) and learning from.
While this is something that I have long believed and long argued it is also something that has become even more concrete for me as my own daughter has begun to play more and more games. As we were preparing for our entry into kindergarten my daughter and I found ourselves focuses more on the basic skills necessary for reading. This was the summer that the game Animal Crossing for the Nintendo game launched. I purchased a copy for Pea for her 5th birthday and passed down the necessary hardware to play the game as I upgraded my own to play the same game alongside her. Animal Crossing is a simulation/time management game where the player is made the mayor of a town and is required to build up her home, her town, and her relationships with the citizens of her town. This is done through a series of interactions and transactions that take play via a series of textual and iconic choices. This is something that is virtually impossible for a non-reader past a certain point. When Pea came to the point that she wanted to do more than walk around and shop for furniture and clothing, plant flowers, pick fruit, catch bugs, and fish she recognized that she would have to read in order to advance to more complex play. Asking mom for help soon became tiresome for her and me so we started the practice of my spelling out the choices for her and letting her find the proper choice. We did this via “lap co-op” initially and later (when she was more comfortable with the process) via random shout outs of her spelling the choices out to me and asking me what the words were or to help her sound them out.
The growth amazed me. In the first two months of her playing the game I saw my daughters ability to sight read, recognized letters and sounds, and navigate the world that she held in her hands explode. While she had been learning these things prior to this the process was laborious and she would quickly grow frustrated when we worked through various phonics systems that I had purchased (everything from video tapes to cartoon character based systems). With Animal Crossing something was different. She was engaged. It was fun. There were things to do that may have involved alphanumeric text and reading, but didn’t seem to revolve around it. She was learning the building blocks of reading (and later to sight read) not because I wanted her to, but because she needed to in order to play the game. And this wasn’t a game that was being foisted upon her in the classroom, but a game that was fun for her and one that she had seen numerous of other people around town playing and whose houses she had collected in her own game and could tour at her leisure via the Street Pass social feature built into the game and the game system itself.
The use of Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) games in the classroom is something that has been frowned upon by most educators, administrators, and parents because of the negative perception of video games by the general public. Anti-games politicians and pundits have long criticized video games as being nothing more than “murder simulators” filled with gratuitous violence and sex. And these people are partially correct in that some video games are replete with gratuitous sex, violence, racism, sexism, misogyny, and any number of other horrible things. But, these are not the games that I would advocate using in a classroom of underaged students (looking at them as cultural artifacts with a group of adult learners is, however, fair game). It is important that, as educators, we choose the right game, in the same manner that we choose the correct book, to teach and reinforce the skills and learning objectives at hand. We should also remember that in addition to choosing a game that has the proper educational elements that we have to choose a game that is engaging so that the students that are using it will actually want to play it, both in school and at home, because if they don’t play it there is nothing to be learned.
Now this may all sound like stuff that you have heard before from me and it probably is, but this is for a different audience. This is a project for folks who teach (and learn) but are not necessarily gamers. This is me moving away from preaching to the converted (and if you are reading this right now you are probably in the ranks of the converted) and seeking to convert more folks. Think of this is as a missionary mission without the eradication of an indigenous peoples’ culture. Heh.
So in the coming weeks and months as I find myself focusing more specifically on this project you may be hearing more and more about this from me so bear with me folks.