Tuesday, March 07, 2006

the value of game playing?

Ken Price (Tasmanian Education Department) has just published the following on an Australian game making forum. I think it's great so I asked him for permission to reprint and he agreed. I'd see it as part of the ongoing debate sparked by Marc Prensky's visit.
this might look a bit like a "games are pointless" crusade. Nothing is further from the truth: I have high regard for any skilled intellectual or physical human activity and my bookshelf attests to my interest in play and fun in education, including my partner's thesis on the Philosophy of Play and mine on Humour in Learning. However, I am noticing a trend amongst the educational evangelists that is based on rather shallow logic of "kids like online games, which justifies their use in education" rather than a more meaningful look at what it is about game playing that we can use effectively and in a planned fashion.

A few years ago, one of Those Parents (you know the sort) started a conversation at a parent evening. His claim was that schools ought to teach kids golf. In fact, they should teach golf for at least an hour a week, he claimed, or we were doing our kids a dis-service. Why? Well, unless we taught them golf, they would never be as good at golf as if we had taught them. So teach them we must.

Nice circular argument. You can replace "golf" with just about anything you like in that paragraph: juggling, rabbit-skinning, stamp collecting, Czech, calligraphy or fire-breathing.

Where it falls apart is that the "golf" or whatever is somehow assumed to either have undisputed personal or social value (as may be the case with reading) or transferability (as may be the case with say the development of confidence in speaking to a group). As it happens, my friends tell me that the physical skills of golf do not transfer well to other sports: high-end players in other sports often do well at golf, but not vice versa. And the social/business function of golf is not the stuff that we'd focus on in schools if we taught golf.

So the question arises: does computer-based game playing have some inherent vaue of its own, and/or are there skills or knowledge involved that transfer to the real world (the non-game world)? In particular, are there skills that are demonstrably useful in wider education? The article at the head of this page suggests a number of well-documented problems associated with gaming: what are the corresponding benefits?

The argument that games represent an important part of modern culture holds some water. However, as kids deal with this quite well without assistance it is difficult to see how digital immigrants like (many) teachers are needed in the process.

The engagement/motivation argument is also a bit questionable on its own: some kids are engaged with fashion, car theft, TV shows or horse riding , but these are not in themselves a basis for pedagogical decisions. We might make use of their interest to guide them, but not take it to extremes.

It may be argued that the game world is no less real than say the world of stock market trading, where people buy and sell tonnes of zinc or pork bellies or orange juice concentrate or apartments without physically handling them. However (perhaps questionably) the latter are seen as contributing to economic and social growth, and of benefit to society. This characteristic does not (in general) hold for computer-based games (though there are significant examples where it does).

I had on my office wall an old cartoon by Gary Larson called Hopeful Parents. It shows the usual vacant Larson parents proudly watching their kid play a computer game, while a thought bubble above their heards showss a newspaper open to job adverts like "Nintendo expert wanted $50,000 salary...Wanted SuperMario Player, $100,000 plus your own car ... Can you save the Princess? We are hiring skilled staff NOW" etc. The satire still works.

None of this in any way detracts from the value of students DESIGNING and BUILDING games. The planning, team work, research and intellectual work involved is significant and (I would argue) very similar to that needed in a range of future employment and social settings. I would prefer however to have a better research base for the value of online games, so that kids are building entities with a value that is easier to justify and demonstrate.


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