March 2010: London is the focus for a gaming-in-education event only in its second year. But at the end of this first decade of the century there was a distinct feeling that Game-Based Learning, both conference and learning approach, were about to hit their biggest curve of growth.More school leaders than ever are beginning to hear about the transformative learning qualities of commercial off-the-shelf and online games (if you haven’t yet, check out my links at the end of this blog post). To claim that video games can improve literacy in one semester might seem overly optimistic, but with the right leadership behind a games-based learning approach it’s almost certainly enough time to start making an impact. Here are some key action points school leaders can make now to reap the benefits.
1. Look at How Commercial, not Educational, Games Can Support Learning
Today it’s as likely to be games not designed for education that offer the most educational potential. With the development budget for a Facebook social game easily hitting $600k, and most console games coming in at anywhere between $4-20m, lower-budget educational or ‘serious’ games find it harder to cut the mustard. Gamers young and old expect more in terms of high values (and highly costly) graphics, video and non-linear complex narratives.
2. Learn How to Communicate the Value of Games
The first step in having a conversation with staff and parents about the potential of video games for learning is to realise that three in four of them is already a ‘gamer’. Gaming can mean playing a quick casual game on Miniclip.com, a protracted round of Farmville on Facebook, a brain training game on a Nintendo DS or a console-based shoot-‘em-up (and for the naysayers, remember that only 2% of the video games market is made up of games rated 18+ only). Many of us are gamers without realising it. It has nothing to do with being a “digital immigrant” or a “digital native”. It’s not about being young; it’s about being youthful.
3. What We Love about Gaming and Why this Makes Them Valuable for Learning
Most people say that games are ‘fun’ first and foremost. This is, of course, true, but games are a whole lot more than that. Take a look at these Toledano pictures of gamers playing and you will see fun in some of their faces.You’ll see one other much more constant emotion: challenge.Games challenge in ways traditional linear media, from feature films to textbooks to PowerPoint presentations, generally do not, certainly not at such regularity with such power and impact.And in an age when politicians, parents and many educators feel that learning has lost its rigour, gaming presents a superb means to challenge young people.For a start, games seem to raise our expectations from the moment we launch them, like a Hollywood blockbuster, and then engage us for as long, sometimes longer. I’ll long remember the day I returned from a day teaching to find my wife, having just received a copy of the Sims, still in pyjamas and rather hungry – she’d been too busy feeding, washing and dressing her virtual friends to do any of the above to herself. Or my mother, who, on a stay over with us could still be found at 2am fighting terrorists in Call of Duty 2.Games help us achieve two things that are essential for learning. Firstly, we swiftly enter a sense of flow where, like my wife playing Sims, we lose track of time around us and are absorbed into in-game time. Secondly, we’re provided with challenges that are, it seems, perfectly pitched at our zone of proximal development – not quite too hard to understand, not too easy to make them boring.The result of these three factors – raised expectation, flowand some Vygotskyism – is an intensity of engagement with content that film, TV, books and an ‘average’ school lesson fail to achieve to quite the same level. I’ll take suggestions of any of the above that achieve the emotion and engagement of a video game for 20 straight minutes.
4. Gaming Helps Clarify and Stretch Our “New Media Literacies”
Gaming is not just about offering challenge, which nearly always leads to learning. Gaming brings into sharp focus and develops much of what, for many leaders, remains the ‘fuzziness’ of new media literacy skills.A good model to think about where gaming fits into the new media literacies our youngsters need (and their parents and teachers, too) is Henry Jenkins’ framework. Just think about how different games might fit into these, from simulation games likeRoller Coaster Tycoon(where you have to learn how to manage a theme park) to social games like Farmville (where you have to work with friends in the running of a farm coop):
- Play — problem-solving
- Performance — improvisation and discovery
- Simulation —interpret and construct real-world processes
- Appropriation — remix media content
- Multitasking – managing multiple contexts
- Distributed Cognition —interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
- Collective Intelligence —pool knowledge toward a common goal
- Judgment —evaluate the reliability and credibility
- Transmedia Navigation —follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
- Networking —search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
- Negotiation —travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.
5. Soft Skills Are Fine, but What “Hard Curriculum” Can We Learn through Games?
Anything. Some games are highly specific about skills development in a particular (subject-focused) area. For example, Dr Kawashima’s Brain Traininghas led to tangible improvements in numeracy and learner confidence in Scotland. But generally, video games hit several specific traditional subject areas while also being superb at hitting a lot of these new media literacy bases.In thisparagraph from a stream of enthusiastic consciousness about game-based learning in a Scottish nursery/kindergarten room, we see that the game itself (EyePet, a virtual augmented reality beast of the students’ creation, like a richer version of a tamagotchi) is secondary to game-inspired activity, and this is how games tend to hit so many strands of our literacies framework:“Caring for goldfish in playrooms, bringing in fish from fish counters on ice and investigating these, children’s drawings and paintings inspired by pet pictures by artists such as Monet and Andy Warhol, visits to Pet shops, visitors in to nursery linked to pets, photographs by children of their own pets and home links, use of video camera and digital camera by children in playroom, pet corner made and designed by children where they dress up as pets to be sold, use money etc etc, sensory area with linked activities, emergent writing and mark making at all areas in the nursery where the children record what they are doing, the list goes on.”This is why an over-emphasis on ‘play’ as a reason to harness the potential of gaming could be unhelpful in understanding why games are so powerful as learning contexts or tools; there’s a lot more than play involved in effective learning that has gaming at its core or point of inspiration.
6. Gaming Helps Develop “Hybrid Talents”
There are careers that require a mix of talents that game-playing within a structured classroom environment provides. But there are new literacy skills required for us to understand and engage with increasingly rich and complex non-linear multi-story narratives with which we interact across a multitude of platforms and devices. In 1997 MIT’s Janet Murray described, in the brilliant Hamlet on the Holodeck, what we’re already seeing now in 2010: narratives that begin on television, invite us to take control of the image, engage on mobile phones and on the web and create our own media remixes to add to the plotlines. Think CSI or NYPD – Henry Jenkins frequently blogs on the latest ‘transmedia ’.Last year’s Sherlock Holmes film release was accompanied by an online flash game 221b.sh. The game extended the story in ways the linear film could not. If you take one of the many comments of players/viewers of the film, they succeeded.
7. What Next?
Do your homework. There are almost too many examples to choose from of where gaming has helped in kindergarten, elementary and high school. Work out which area you want to concentrate on and then take advantage of the case studies others have done to create new plans (and give you some ammunition against the sceptics). Scotland’s Consolarium (http://ltsblogs.org.uk/consolarium/) or my own workshop notes (Google: “McIntosh Thinking Out Of The (X)Box”) are a good place to start.
Engage with Parents and Maximise Budget
There are two ways to take advantage of the console-based learning that we describe above. One, in order to establish practice initially and test ideas, is to purchase both devices and games, as well as investing in some time and perhaps professional development for your teachers. The second, is to invite parents into school to share your vision for the project, and survey them to find out what gaming consoles and games students already have hidden in their schoolbags, or back home. This leaves more headspace in budget to consider giving educators the professional development and thinking/planning time required to make a go of things.
There are a variety of free or low-cost and web-based applications out there to stretch the writing an creative capacity of learners from early elementary through to high school, so why not set up a District-wide game-making challenge to get all your schools engaged? Try MIT’s Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu/) or Microsoft’s Kodu (http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/projects/kodu/) or 2Simple’s 2DIY for starters (http://www.2simple.com/2diy/examples/).
Borrow from Play to Affect Other Areas of School Management
If you were only to read the tabloid newspapers you’d believe that the only behavioural change that games can engender was one of feral violence and sleep deprivation. Looking closer, though, we can see how the ingredients of good games can work in the real world, by making ‘fun’, engaging and even challenging acts as simple as choosing to take the stairs instead of the escalator. How could elements of The Fun Theory (http://www.thefuntheory.com) change your leadership for the better?