How Video Games Will Save School

Once it was rock-n-roll that was condemned for corrupting the youth. These days, it’s often video games that are blamed. Despite a lack of research to tie gaming to negative behaviors, video games still suffer from a fair amount of negative media attention. And perhaps that’s part of the reason why schools remain resistant to adopting game-based learning. So why should schools pay attention to video games? Researcher and educator Dean Groom debunks many of the arguments against video games, and points to the kind of learning that video games support.

How video games will save schooling.

Many of us in education believe success in the twenty-first century depends on us increasing our efforts towards design thinking, solving complex problems, working and interacting critically as individuals and groups using mediums carried by the Internet. Increasingly, university and industry research confirms video games naturally support and promote this kind of learning.

This article delves into why schools should pay attention to video games. When they discover a new video game, children ask “can I try, can I join, can I save?” This is exactly what I want to hear in my classroom too.

Over the last twenty years, video games have successfully remediated existing cultural literature and created examples. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings is a book, a film, a TV series and a successful massively multiplayer role playing game (MMORPG). This year, the biggest selling children’s book in Australian was about the game Minecraft. Children have no reason to believe this is remarkable, unlike adults who are witnessing children inhabiting and demanding uncomprehendable media they have no personal experience with.

For teachers, the challenge of video games could largely be avoided in the past. Now games generate so much advertising revenue, editors no longer attack them as they once did. The games industry has grown bigger than film and music and that changes how they are represented – and treated. In 2014, almost 85% of applications downloaded from Apple’s iTunes store and Google’s Android (Play) store were games. Contrary to the stereotypes about gamers, over 95% of people play and almost half of those are female.

This begs the question: Are schools too reluctant to take games as seriously?

The answer lies, as so often, in cultural resistance rather than educational theory or evidence. Studies about teacher adoption of new technologies shows many barriers exist in the workplace, but less so at home. Playing a game would come as second nature it seems, if not for education’s reluctance.

Gamers are likely to be exceedingly good negotiators and problem solvers

Since the golden age of video-arcades in the 1980s, a consistent premise has persisted in which video games extend the existing negative ‘media effects’ debate. This debate revolves around the broader “death of childhood” and “civic decay” media panics concerned about youth out of control. Like motorcycles, MTV and Twisted Sister, games were blamed for corrupting our youth and devoid of any redeemable qualities. Very few commercial games have ever made it into the classroom for long. Today, newer social research is showing gamers are more likely to be exceedingly good negotiators and problem solvers. The commercial success of games today debunks outdated representations so we are seeing games in a much more positive light than ever before. Yay for games!

Games are a media form in their own right.

Games are unique in they challenge our cultural understanding of the value of play itself. To use games, educators have so firmly believe (and publicly declare) play is not the opposite of work, and play will enrich, not diminish schooling. This requires not only proof, but also firsthand experience and courage on the part of schools, administrators and teachers.

Common debates in video games and children

To start talking about games in schools, I find it useful to set out some themes. These are drawn from the negative and positive media representations of games and so the most likely to produce a generative debate.

  • The agency of children playing games (positive and negative binaries).
  • Games are part of literary culture (which alarms some people and groups).
  • Games as structured fantasies which will continue to change adult conceptions of media and children’s relationship with the material they contain.
  • Education’s willingness to investigate the “power of play” in the development of children (why kids need monsters and angels) in an era of increased standardisation and testing.
  • Educators’ attempts to coerce game methods into classrooms (the “spoon full of sugar” pedagogy).
  • Ed-tech advocates over-estimation of “Web 2.0” and under-estimation of video games as a transformative force for change.
  • Objective, factual reporting of games in the media.

To address these, holistically, I’ll start with the largest field of negative representation of video games. Science, and in particular clinical psychology has claimed to be on the ‘cusp of proving’ causality between video games and aggression and addiction. Despite hundreds of experiments, they have not swayed the World Health Organisation (WHO) to list these as a pathology. I raise this briefly, as the media influences people’s belief. These often quote clinical psychology studies — not always correctly, honestly or within context relevant to education or families. Too much of anything is usually bad for humans and we know effective regulation of media-use is a key parenting skill. I won’t dwell on the need for better media education among adults, other than to say it could be improved.

For these reasons, video games present a wicked problem. They have been shown to be enjoyable and useful to children’s development, yet how adults come to understand and judge games through emerging, overlapping, inconsistent and variable media reports and inter-personal discussions is confusing. There is very limited research into how people come to use digital media – and there’s no proof video games are the most dangerous form.

Games represent a positive learning experience.

One of the key concepts in media studies is “representation.” This is also true of games. How people represent themselves is a popular concern of teachers advocating for “digital citizenship” and “digital identity.” This makes for a compelling reason schools should investigate games as they can play an important role in representing people, events, and ideas — a represent them in today’s cultural literature.

Game-play involves experimentations in identity-formation, but in a safer environment than other online endeavors

Children play many types of games as both the player and the audience. It’s been shown games “teach” players. What is less talked about is how players learn while they’re the audience.  As the audience, game-players take an active role in decoding representations made by all media forms though their own cultures and life-situations.

Despite some of the stereotypes about lone video-game players, games are not isolated or experienced in any exclusivity. If you want to be a better player, you’d better get in-sync with the best YouTube, Reddit and Tumbr channels too. In my own research on how middle-schoolers negotiate playing games at home, kids say that being able to use lots of media sources optimises both their skill in the game and optimises the available time they are allowed to play it. It’s their argument for not just playing games, but having access to game-networks and owning media-spaces around it.

You can’t be a happy or productive gamer if you are invisible. You have to build an audience, you have to have information to trade, and you have to be willing to be someone else’s audience. The rationale is that together, everyone plays better. Everyone learns to play better.

Trying out new identities

Some adults believe that learning to represent ourselves using media is becoming increasingly important. We’re joining Twitter, connecting via LinkedIn, and trying to find our own happy-productive niche in the “metaverse.” We learn by copying, following, and making mistakes — and we do it in public.

This public shaping of identity is what scares adults and schools — because it’s easy to get it wrong. Social media is quite unforgiving when it comes to being forgotten or being invisible.

Game based learning enables learner agency

Video games are masters at allowing players to try on new representations of themselves with very little in the way of a lasting digital footprint and/or with very little risk of failing. For example, in a game, a child can play and develop new agency, boosting their self-esteem. They can be anyone they like, they can run, join, and save.

There is nothing that rings more alarm bells than a player who asks another person their name or where they live. In fact, kids are “digital mongooses,” using their immediate networks to vet anyone new.  In this way, XBox Live, Steam, Blizzard and the like have network functions that adults model using Twitter. There’s no evidence to suggest a game-network is comparable to “an Internet chat room” (as some fear) or even Facebook or Twitter — beyond facilitating two-way near-instant chat. We can learn a lot from how kids negotiate in game-networks because they have a lot more agency there than anywhere else.

Can anyone learn to use games?

Yes. In games, anyone can become successful learner, leader, trader, helper, and oracle of knowledge. I’ve lost count of how many kids I’ve met who found personal success in game-worlds which rarely happened to them in school until they met teachers, librarians, and other staff who could tap into this to build positive mental representations for academic success.

Minecraft: A great place for schools to start.

Minecraft: one of the most powerful educational technologies available

Learning about games is transformational for many teachers. To use games (or game-based learning) in the classroom means designing learning so that children and teachers can represent themselves, materials, and concepts while playing games, designing games or adopting “game-like” processes. For example, we can teach children mathematical concepts in Minecraft if we are willing to believe playing Minecraft is both culturally acceptable and has a pedagogical imperative.

I’d argue that Minecraft is one of the most powerful educational technologies available between kindergarten and middle-school. It’s the Swiss army knife of educationally-orientated play.

Minecraft opens the door to many teaching activities: words (in oral or in written form); extra-linguistic modes of expression (gestures, glances); different types of inscriptions (drawings, sketches, graphs); different instruments  (from the pencil to the most sophisticated ICT devices).  Perhaps more importantly, Minecraft makes teachers rethink the multi-modal ways in which such resources are produced, developed and, used in tasks like building a castle, a farm, or even an economy. Minecraft can become a lens to focus the social interactions between teacher and students in new ways. (There is even a school-oriented variant called “Minecraft Edu” as well as a sizable Minecraft-using teacher-community online.)

Yeah but — it doesn’t align to standards!

It is highly unlikely that commercial games such as Minecraft will directly teach pure-concepts or deliver exact material in classrooms to meet standards.

Some “educational games” exist, mass-produced for educational markets — but they become boring to many kids after a while. Some games research shows these games of limited academic value as they are almost always tied to those of traditional learning, and as such have only a small impact on student performance. While they can tick some grade-book and content delivery boxes, these games don’t tap into the creativity, imagination, and playful nature of learning itself.

An effective teacher will build learning around resources which inspire kids be better – and a game is just another resource. I am not going to make any apologies in saying teachers and school leaders need to learn more about using games than what’s currently expected by professional development programs or college courses. They need get the opportunity to explore new practices (which ironically is also the rhetoric politicians and thought leaders set out in support of using technology).

Games are a medium containing a series of practices schools can use.

These practices are things we all want in innovative classrooms: improving our mental and physical skills; targeting young children’s cognitive development; building environments which are aesthetically realistic, socially connected, and collaborative; and making a space with a high tolerance for failure.

When using games and game-based learning (GBL), the teacher’s role is to apply “semiotic mediation” to learning experiences. This means the children won’t simply play the game because the score can be easily added to the grade book, or even simply because it’s fun. GBL teachers create activities in and around the game and game-play (classroom discussions, making, playing, listening, and so on). They use the signs of learning that required teacher mediation in order for it to be useful in formative and summative assessment.

In-game experiences can be related to the classroom, where students can apply these to real-world situations

Take for example playing “Plants vs Zombies,” probably not a game anyone would argue is “educational.” And yet it can be. The GBL teacher might ask the kids: which character has the greatest ability to influence the events in the game? What is missing in the game (e.g. children). Which characters are active and passive in this situation? How does this relate to [something else in class] or can you give me an example from history where we also see these sorts of relationships or actions?

Using these semiotic approaches to look for signals of learning, GBL teachers can draw the in-game experience out into the classroom where students can apply it to real-world situations. Students can use the narratives that engage them in gaming, such as quests, sagas, romances, and epic adventures. Doing so moves learning from rigid facts to imaginative possibilities. This is how game based learning emerges from video games — and why it will become the next-generation of “project based learning methods” (if I get my way).

Teachers can use game-play to represent (there’s that word again) very real world problems and try out solutions. Save the world — a feature of games but ideally something that can be transferred beyond the virtual. This is the essential agenda of those of us in the global “Games For Change” movement.

I acknowledge there is an on-going tension between what the system wants teachers to do and what teachers believe they should be doing. My argument is that games should not be the “last” technology in line because of school culture clashing with society.

How World of Warcraft re-invented learning and leadership.

When teachers begin to understand and value students’ personal appropriation of the signs, fostered by strong social interactions, under the coaching of the teacher, we see amazing things happen such as the award winning, teacher driven Warcraft In Schools.

Here we see teachers combining a range of learning designs so the student feels what they are learning has logic and plausibility.  This has been the all-too-often student complaint: that the classroom learning has no relevance to the “real world.” This is one of many brilliant ideas in WoWinSchools. Teachers have used signs and mediation, leveraged emotional intelligence to create agency and then used that towards academic success.

Gaming, leading, and learning in the workplace

If we are preparing kids for their future, and if we accept that they will enter a workforce profoundly changed by technology and globalization, then there is no reason to avoid games in education

Incorporating video games into work has been shown to help people do their jobs better. And perhaps the adoption of gaming there will in turn can help schools re-examine their assumptions and beliefs about work and play. Games, some companies have found, can help staff uncover core passions and connect them to school missions and values. Games are way to schedule virtual play time with co-workers and peers. A games console is a great way to create a comfortable play-space or lounge in your office and in your school — it’s something that allows people to bring more of their personal, creative, playful life into the work- or school- place.

If we are preparing kids for their future, and if we accept that they will enter a workforce profoundly changed by technology and globalization, then there is no reason to avoid games in education. Games are not simply more fun; they are better designed to be make learning fun — something I think merits much more attention that has received. One problem here is that education has been saturated, much like the media, with ideas about what counts as “good” educational technology and “good” media — all on a thin veneer of evidence. Perhaps the increasingly positive media reports towards games might see ed-tech take video games as seriously as it did interactive whiteboards.

We’re out of beta and launching on time!

We are still standing at the beginning when it comes to using video games in schools. And yet we also standing on 30 years of research. Technologically and culturally, games are no longer the monster under the bed. Game-based learning is more than possible. Schools that accept that creativity, imagination, and self-directed learning play a critical role in academic success can learn to take advantage of video games and gaming culture. This is not simply a hopeful plea on my part, but an extension of how games are changing much of how people are learning now – and in the future.

… Now pass me my mighty sword. I’m tired of writing …

Image credits: Jared Young, Rolo Tomassi, Kenming Wang

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