Gamers enjoying the “retro recroom” at gamercamp
Institutional and informal game play: What’s at stake for learning?
The image above is from Gamercamp, a Toronto gaming unconference where I moderated a panel on “Play”. What I saw there and pictured above was an awesome example of truly holistic, situated, informal learning. And the kind of thing I would like to see in our schools. What do I mean by situated and holistic learning?
1) autonomy –nobody was forced to be in this room, they just wandered in
2) choice –some are playing, others are watching
3) self direction– choice of a variety of consoles
4) play focus - learning is a component but not the end goal of this activity
5) interactivity and participation – participants can interact with the games and each other
6) sensory stimulation – the experience is mediated by multiple-sensory experiences and physical learning
7) basic human needs – beanbag seats, comfortable clothing, food. the conference offered various cereals and choice of regular or soy milk.
Unlike other conferences, gamercamp envisioned the event as a “non-stuffy” experience where participants had the freedom to move around, check things out and play. Nobody was expected to dress up in a suit and tie. In fact, we were encouraged to show up in PJs … this is just one, of many, things I loved about it.
With educators finally embracing electronic games as a legitimate context for learning, there is some debate about how to situate games/gaming in schools. In addition to exploring this question, I’m interested in the ways gamers transgress the limitations of institutional/formal learning and the nature of authentic gaming spaces/contexts (outside of school) as a key to learning with games but also the very future of education.
Null curriculum v. school curriculum: Excluding the real
I am currently researching situated and informal learning (non skooly, non classroom, teacherless) via online gaming and virtual worlds. I’m especially interested in how these spaces illuminate the “hidden” and “null curriculum” and how the absence or presence of this knowledge impacts a learner’s success in an educational learning space (school/institution). Null curriculum in the context of gaming relates to the absence or presence of “appropriate” and “inappropriate” videogames or content that is excluded from a formal learning environment because of institutional policies, standards or rules.
While many institutional learning environments would favour edugames over commercial games, evidence suggests that commercial games offer as much or more real learning in the form of team work, strategy, creative thinking, problem solving, narrative inquiry, role play, exploration and etc (see James Gee, in particular, for more about these literacies) are engaged. I’d argue that many schools would favour edugames (or game making courses) over the use of commercial games due to the policies around appropriate/inappropriate content rather than any real pedagogical reason for excluding these games. The content learners really need to understand and engage is aggressively excluded (e.g., “nullified”) from the curriculum due to policy, not pedagogy. And this is where formal education fails as a model of “learning.”
As a media teacher (and gamer) with a strong social justice focus, I see Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as an IDEAL game for critiquing ideology, racism and stereotypes (for secondary and college learners – not kids!). But I know that the content in this game (racist, sexist, homophobic, violent and vulgar) violates the human rights code that governs the resources we use in our school board. This isn’t an issue of censorship, it’s an issue of oppressive content. And I understand the reasoning here. Though as a teacher, I feel that any kind of content, if properly scaffolded, is an “appropriate” learning resource. I had this very conversation with a Catholic school principal who said she felt that banning Youtube from the Catholic district robbed teachers and students of teachable moments (though views like hers are still in the minority, particularly in faith-based schools).
Whether I might be able to show “parts” of the game and restrict game play to only certain regions is another story, but that’s not really inquiry – or learning (in any meaningful sense). One of the things I’m fighting for right now is just this: the possibility of using the games students actually play (however transgressive) to critique and explore the dominant ideology – just as we have done with “controversial” literature, art or film. Only now, with the addition of a controller and avatar, we are participating in that content (though I’d argue that engaging a novel or other traditional curriculum is also participation).
By negating certain cultural forms we relegate them to the domain of the “null” or “hallway” curriculum, where the things our learners enjoy and relate to are deemed inappropriate and unworthy of serious study – and that, by extension, their identification and investment in these cultures (if not their very identity) is negated. When we tell a teenage boy, for example, that playing Halo is “bad” or will make him “violent” or that he may be “addicted” we’re imposing a value system on his play style and identity that does real harm. For example, this same individual may read or write Halo fan fiction (but not enjoy the school’s chosen curriculum), which got him writing, reading and creating by tapping into his existing, self selected interests. This is the essence of differentiated learning, too.
While there are legitimate reasons to exclude questionable content when doing so may constitute a form of oppression if not properly scaffolded, ethically delivered and presented, these issues could be addressed in the same way they have been for other forms of content, curriculum or learning activities. We could also think about alternative options — students could do other forms of self directed inquiry– for those who cannot or will not participate in this content for personal, political or religious reasons. From a purely social justice perspective, I believe such accommodations are critical for equitable learning in any context. There are also issues of accessibility, disability and cognitive differences that will limit participation for many. These are all important things to think about in general when talking about participatory gaming, virtual worlds or use of hardware/interface based learning structures.
Using the games gamers actually play: WoW in Schools
I’m going to call Lucas Gillespie heroic because he’s doing the very thing I’m advocating above: using REAL games, not edugames, for learning. His groundbreaking WoW in Schools project has learners using World of Warcraft as a learning space and activity for all kinds of curriculum – from English and history to math and science. Gillespie’s project has gained much attention and I’m hoping his example will lead school boards to consider the value and importance of using the games learners actually play.
Yes, this is a commercial game. Yes, it is inscribed with the dominant ideology, Yes it reinforces a very obvious hegemony. Yes, it contains questionable imagery and representations. Yes, it costs money. BUT, I would argue that any teacher interested in engaging the game critically (as well as playfully) is afforded with the richest opportunities for inquiry given the fact that this game is so deeply inscribed with all of the above. And while Gillespie may not have the same sort of agenda as I do (i.e., critiquing the game), his approach and those like his offer all sorts of varied learning opportunities. And that is precisely why I play – and so should you!
Though WoW in Schools pre-selects one game on behalf of learners (versus a self selected gaming project), it may be exemplary and instructive as a model for teaching and learning with self selected games as well. Ideally, learners would have the option to self select their own favourite games as they might do for novel study (i.e., go to the library and pick a book to do a report on) versus mandatory we’re all reading the same novel/game. Given my training and background as an Media and English teacher, I see many parallels in the delivery of games-based learning via other traditional curriculum structures.
Gamification in education? Skooly v. real gaming
There’s a lot of talk right now about the pros and cons of “gamification,” which is the application of game mechanics to non-gaming tools or environments (mostly, currently, for commercial media, news and product marketing). Most of the folks I know and talk to have a fairly hostile view of this idea, which well articulated below:
That problem being that gamification isn’t gamification at all. What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience. Points and badges have no closer a relationship to games than they do to websites and fitness apps and loyalty cards. They’re great tools for communicating progress and acknowledging effort, but neither points nor badges in any way constitute a game. Games just use them – as primary school teachers, military hierarchies and coffee shops have for centuries – to help people visualise things they might otherwise lose track of. They are the least important bit of a game, the bit that has the least to do with all of the rich cognitive, emotional and social drivers which gamifiers are intending to connect with.
I have observed a few simple approaches that seem to be taking educators in the right direction with games in education. These are based on my own experiences but they might be helpful to another educator who is new to all of this.
You don’t have to use every game platform to get a feel for gaming. In fact, it’s best that you find one you most identify with and really saturate yourself in it while trying other games on the side. Chances are, you will have an affinity for a gaming platform (console, PC, mobile, etc). Ask your students what games they are playing and explore them.
2) Follow other gaming educators (or better yet, gamers and game developers)
I created a few lists in my Twitter that you might want to check out. Otherwise, I leave it to you to ask your network who games. The more gaming educators I followed, the more I found. I also follow many game developers I knew from before I started teaching.
3) Go to the places that scare you
I hated WoW. And I didn’t understand PVP. Two good reasons to explore both. Doing so took me out of my comfort zone, misconceptions and attitudes about both and I learned a ton. Maybe for you it’s first person shooters? In addition to choosing games you want to play, you should also explore games that you don’t really relate to.
4) Learn about gaming culture(s) and history
Electronic gaming culture has a deep and meaningful history beyond the console wars. If you never played DnD, for example, you might be surprised to learn how many MMOs are derived from mind of Gary Gygax.
5) Explore situated, autonomous, self directed gaming
If you’ve got kids of your own you’ve already got a great opportunity to learn about games in an authentic environment: your living room (or wherever the gaming is happening). What are the features of informal game spaces? What kind of learning do you observe?
I encourage you to add some of your own suggestions below!
My previous posts on wow and gaming