Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is gaming f-u-n-damental?

Sipped my coffee this morning while reading about "The Pedagogy of Play and the Role of Technology in Learning" on the PBS Mediashift blog. The author, Aran Levasseur, is a middle school history and science teacher and the Academic Technology Coordinator at San Francisco University High School. He writes about the video game Civilization, in which players create a civilization and maintain it by managing its military, science, technology, commerce, and culture. His main contention is that you learn from this game, as from any game, not by accumulating information from books, but by playing.
"You start by exploring the world with curiosity and begin to develop a hypothesis of what you're supposed to do. Through trial, error, pattern recognition, logic and chance you continually reformulate your trajectory."
Levasseur argues for the importance of play, particularly digital play, as a pedagogical "keystone" for the current century. Citing Stuart Brown's book, Play, he claims that
"play is vital for normal cognitive, social and emotional development. It reduces stress and increases well-being. Absence of play leads to maladaptive behavior." 
Play, he argues, is about “exploring the possible," adding,
"Our systems of education haven’t prepared us to think and act playfully, nor do our institutions of work by and large encourage this behavior. Yet it is this kind of playful disposition that is the muse of all great thinkers, artists and innovators.”
This is all great news, but some caveats are in order. Caveats, moreover, that bring us back to cognitive psychology and Bloom's taxonomy. What Lavasseur describes as play is in fact an application of procedural knowledge, knowledge about how to do something, like knit a sweater, build a robot, or build a grassroots coalition for social change. Procedural knowledge is important, but it is only one type of knowledge, and it is a relatively high-level type of knowledge that is only possible once other types of knowledge have been mastered, including factual knowledge and conceptual knowledge.

Lavasseur points out that you learn to play the game Civilization by playing the game, not by reading Gibbons's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. While that is quite true, what it implies is that once you have learned to play the game, what you know how to do the game. You have mastered one very particular sort of procedural knowledge. Perhaps you could learn more quickly and easily how to play another, similar game. But could you knit a sweater? Could you build a robot or a grassroots coalition for social change?

I'm excited about the prospects for digital technologies, including games, as pedagogical tools. But we need to keep in mind that we as teachers need to use these tools responsibly. We cannot just put a game in our students' hands and call it a day, go home, let them have at it. We need to design our courses in terms of facts and concepts as well as procedures. And we need to ensure that we are giving our students opportunities to practice recollection, comprehension, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, as well as the application of procedural knowledge that seems to predominate in play.


  1. I think that there's often a kind of "technology will fix it!" ethos that gets into the gloss of Game Based Learning-- but a game can focus attention (what Jane McGonigal calls "flow"), at which games are very good. But as scholars, most of us actually do experience that flow when we are reading, drafting, studying, etc. A game can be a way to build that experience for our students.

    I can imagine that Civilization would be terrible at helping you learn dates or people, but it would be great at helping you understand the tactics behind historical decisions.


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