Oct 30 2007

Games for Learning: Solution de Jour

Games for Learning: Solution de Jour Deck: By Cathleen Norris and Elliot Soloway Children play games. Children play lots and lots of games. Children have always played games — and it is a safe bet to say children will continue to play games in the future. An alternative epithet for the Baby Boomer generation might well be the Monopoly Generation — and Microsoft is not replacing Boardwalk or Park Place anytime soon. From physical games to digital games; from games of skill to games of drill; playing games — across the media — is a highly sanctioned social activity.

Many games have a positive mind-altering element. Clue, for example, helps children develop logical thinking: Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick… (For the Gen Y’ers Clue is a cardboard-based game on which metal pieces are moved about. Please excuse the Baby Boomers for being so literal.) And, there are many computer-based games that exercise the brain, making it stronger. From SimCity to SimTower with all of the other Sims in between, these are classic games that have sound educational value — and they are also engaging and entertaining.

Indeed, is SimCity a game or is it a simulation? Simulations are wonderful creations; they take advantage of the affordances of a computer by allowing an individual to play “what-if” games without fear of destruction or injury. Dr. Surgical Intern, please do play those games requiring dexterity; practice on those digital cadavers before you take out my appendix. There is probably some merit in making careful distinctions between games and simulations. We will leave that discussion to the angels and/or academics to set us straight. Yawn.

Here is the part where we go over the cliff. There are some who claim children should be using computer games (and/or simulations) for a significant portion of their learning. Computer games can be effective in promoting intellectual gains and they are, by and large, fun and engaging. Children play games outside of school; let’s use games inside of school. This is a win-win.

And to underscore the point, some game proponents now call their work “serious games.” After all, calling a game a “serious game” will surely make school administrators and parents more comfortable. Hey, kids aren’t just playing games, they are playing serious games. Hey.

Ah, excuse me — haven’t we seen this picture before? Take a technology that has prima facie good value and pump it up to be the savior of education. Throw some money at it (the Feds are doing that now with “serious games.”) and write academic papers about pilot studies that show the promise of the technology. And then, when the controlled studies show no difference due to the technology, move onto the next solution de jour. Blogs and podcasts — you’re next.

How many times do educators need to get burned before we realize there is no silver bullet — no one answer? Education today, more than ever, is all about diversity. Business people deal with homogenous groups — secretaries, COOs, assembly line workers, nurses, etc. While there is clearly diversity within each of these groups, the fact one can even put a label on the group means there is already a fair amount of homogeneity in the group. All one can say about the 18 to 30 children in a kindergarten class is “there are 18 to 30 children in kindergarten class.” The diversity in that one classroom defies the imagination.

Furthermore, school is about a classroom where children are engaged six hours a day, five days a week, for 180 days a year. Education is not a sprint; education is a marathon where pacing, patience and the ability to respond to diverse conditions are the keys to success. In order to deal with the diversity, in order to run the marathon, educators need an enormous set of instructional techniques; games, serious or otherwise are just one tool that can be useful for some students at some time for some issue.

The danger to the “educational games movement” is that we are narrowing our focus too early; we are taking the easy road by making finer and finer distinctions (e.g., games vs. simulations, games vs. serious games). As responsible educators, our challenge is to diverge and invent new instructional techniques; declaring victory by promoting any one instructional technique is a doomed strategy — as those in educational technology know only too well. Go forth and multiply; now that’s a time-tested guideline that we ignore at our children’s peril.

Educational Games are Timeless

There are several classic educational games introduced in the 1980s and early 1990s:

  • Lemonade Stand: children learn about money by selling lemonade
  • Oregon Trail: travel across America via wagon trail, managing resources, having adventures.
  • Rocky’s Books: control a kicking raccoon by building logic circuits
  • SimCity: manage the growth of a city
  • Green Globs: learn about equations

Fast forward to today: With all the horsepower and fancy graphics available to designers, one might think that there would be great new educational games. Surprise! Not only is there a dearth of new educational games, those ancient games are still surviving in Web-based versions.

At least the above simulations allow a child to dive into and explore another world. There are more types of drill-and-kill, Jeopardy-like games then there are butterflies. Apparently, though, teachers as well as students like Jeopardy-style fact drill games. Outside of school we call learning Jeopardy-style facts “trivia” while in school we feel that such learning is core.

While we aren’t usually so curmudgeonly, really.