Monday, February 15, 2010

Computer games as learning tools

I'm thinking about games (in particular, computer games) as learning tools. Can computer games be effective learning tools? Of course. It is possible. A more generic question would be, can children learn from play? And the answer is even more "of course".

There is considerable literature on the importance of play in learning. Susan Engel, the director of the teaching program at Williams College, summarized this in a recent New York Times op-ed piece ("Playing to Learn"):
Research has shown unequivocally that children learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning. Play — from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games — can allow children to satisfy their curiosity about the things that interest them in their own way. It can also help them acquire higher-order thinking skills, like generating testable hypotheses, imagining situations from someone else’s perspective and thinking of alternate solutions.
The Alliance for Childhood has published a lot of material about the role of play. The title of their most recent report summarizes their general perspective: "Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School." Their report argues that "play builds competence in many domains."
Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than nonplayers, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking.
A Big Question though is whether the benefits of play in general are preserved in the realm of computer-based games. A key term in the above quote is "socio-dramatic play", a feature transformed or completely missing from computer games. Yes there are social games (role-playing ones in particular), and the Internet is great for matching up players from different corners of the world. But computer-mediated communication and socializing is not the same as face-to-face socializing. (For more on this see an earlier posting, a response to Heather Bromberg's chapter on whether MUDs are communities.) The recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey on media use of 8-to-18-year-olds reinforces this idea, finding a strong correlation between higher media use and lack of personal contentment, boredom and getting into trouble. (The report does caution about assuming a causal effect, and that the relationship may go in either direction -- bored, unhappy kids may immerse themselves in media, as opposed to more media use making kids unhappy. But the point remains that they are not happier for their media consumption.)

If computer games fall short in developing social and emotional skills, what about cognitive skills? Computers are used extensively in education, and even when a computer activity doesn't rise the the level of game, they still have a gaming component (rewards, playful screen design, even just interacting with the machine having an element of play to it). Computer game play, like all play can engage students in content, and as Engel noted (see above), children learn best when they are engaged in what they are learning.

So don't computer games have an important role? Certainly computers have their place (for a good summary see M. D. Roblyer and Aaron Doering's Integrating Educational Technology into Teaching, chapter 3). The whole debate is a complex one, intertwined with learning theory. Let's just say for now that yes, they can be helpful under specific circumstances and with the proper teacher-support.

The more interesting question to me is how effective can computer games be in teaching about history, economics, and social studies in general.

Take chess. Chess is a very abstract game, using an idealized playing space with highly stylized pieces. Technically the pieces refer to feudal social positions, but in practice, they represent six sets of abilities. On the other hand, a board game like Monopoly is much less abstract, more anchored in the world (in particular, real estate markets in 1930s Atlantic City). And then you have computer games like SimCity or Civilization that purport to be about the actual world. But what can they teach one about how the world really works? Any lessons from chess will likely be stylized, abstract, and as a result highly transferable. Lessons from SimCity or Civilization (e.g., how to keep cities happy and productive) are likely to be at best shallow and at worst, misleading.

Yes games like SimCity and Civilization can be fun In the course of play, one needs to practice some math, and cultivate some kinds of problem-solving skill. But the depth of problems doesn't go that deep. One masters the rules of the game to achieve pre-set goals. For all of the engaging graphics though, these games fail to rise to the pure simplicity masking deep deep complexity in a game like chess. For a hint of this, check out Garry Kasparov's wonderful article The Chess Master and the Computer from the the February 11, 2010 New York Review of Books (here's some more blog and quotes from the article).

It is very important to recognize that SimCity and Civilization and other games are designed. That is, they are not the real world. [Yes chess is a social product, and in a sense "designed", but more in the way that evolution "designs" -- chess has evolved over time, with many hands and minds touching it, refining it, smoothing it. It has withstood the test of time, and doesn't require electricity.]

Will Wright and Sid Meier and other game designers have a particular understanding of the way the world works. And that understanding, including ideology, power relationships, how the world changes, the range of possibilities, infuses, and ultimately limits, the games. Games are highly structured, and only work because they have well-defined rules. (There is a substantial literature on this too, but here is one link to a 2004 article from a libertarian website that looks at this: "Free Play", from Take-away quote: "Political ideas are infiltrating not just the back-stories of games but their 'play mechanics' -- the inner workings that shape game behavior. ")

I actually spoke to Will Wright about the question of possibilities in SimCity, briefly, on the floor of MacWorld, more than 15 years ago. Why not have an element of citizen morale that could kick in in times of trouble? After all, morale was an important component that saw the heroic citizens of Leningrad through its thousand-day siege, and London through the blitz, during World War II. And why not have a potential of solar power as a possible technology, instead of just smoke-spewing coal-fired plants and nuclear power plants that inevitably blow up? Wright just got mad. (Maybe these things eventually made it into SimCity, I haven't looked at the game in a decade.)

[The idea of ideology infusing a game is true even of a centuries-old, rich-in-tradition game like chess. Chess is a war game, with a heirarchy of pieces, and an implicit ideology. (The ideology includes some surprises. I like the idea that (a) pawns can checkmate a king, (b) the queen is the most powerful piece on the board but not the most important one, and (c) a pawn can become a more powerful being when it completes its journey across the board.) Chess to me is a pure game: it is a game of deep thought, of intricate patterns, of complex problem-solving. It is also rich in life lessons. Some of the life lessons are short-changed when chess is played against a computer. Gone are the social niceties of shaking hands before a game, the discipline of touch-move, and the novelty of human play. Online is different from face-to-face.]

When computer games are used in the classroom, there is always a teaching moment to clarify the hidden sides of the game. Especially with games that attempt to portray actual events or processes. What does it say about what happened or happens? What does it imply about power and change? What is there? What is missing?


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