Play Your Way to Academic Success?

Kids love playing games.  Computer Age kids love playing computer games.  In games, especially highly complex computer games, players must learn, as a matter of course, vast amounts of detailed information about how the game operates and how to interrelate their knowledge of its various features to maximize desired results. Given sufficient time, a kid playing a game such as Counter Strike, Halo, Half Life, or World of Warcraft will accumulate a dizzying familiarity with the game’s intricacies and still keep coming back for more.  On the other hand, kids usually do not enjoy assimilating the vast amounts of information they encounter in traditional school settings, partly because the acquisition of this knowledge array rarely resembles anything that might be thought of as play.

This affinity between computer game play and learning powerfully attracts educators who are attempting to find a way to harness the seemingly magnetic effects of in-game learning to the problem of teaching the fundamentals-and-beyond of core academic subjects to students in classrooms. In research by James Paul Gee and the team of Kurt Squire and Shree Durga some of the surrounding issues are explored in depth.  Although these efforts bring out some fascinating and important points about the potential for using computer games to facilitate student learning, this pedagogical Holy Grail is still waiting to be discovered.  The combination of video gaming and academic learning seems like such a great idea. Why has it been so difficult to realize?

The seductive notion that somehow educational curriculum can become so entertaining that students forget that they are learning is a siren song that predates the current crop of computer games and hopeful educators.  Although the attempts were nowhere as sophisticated as Squire’s and Durga’s use of historiographic modding tools in Civilization III, the classroom games I experienced as a young student in the Sixties had the same spirit behind them—the teacher’s desire to make the material we had to learn more palatable and more relevant.  This noble goal certainly deserves every creative innovation it can generate.  I wonder, however, whether the elements of play that makes computer gaming such a great teacher can ever be fully exploited in the classroom.  That play is different from work, everyone knows, including children.  Though both play and work involve learning, the two go about it from very different perspectives.  Play is self-directed learning with no overriding agenda behind it.  Play may have immediate goals such as beating a computer game, connecting with friends, or conducting a marriage between Ken and Barbie, but it does not have the sort of goals that weigh down the fun with expectation.

The difference, as I see it, can be illustrated by what often occurs when a hobby becomes a business: play becomes work and easily loses the entertainment value that makes learning so effortless.  I very much doubt that people who play World of Warcraft for profit enjoy the game the way that ordinary players do.  In a less digital example, I used to do a lot of artistic painting for my own enjoyment.  I began to sell a few of my creations, and eventually, I turned my hobby into a small business.  I found that I rarely had time to paint things that fed my need for play because I had to paint what someone else wanted.  I still enjoyed the use of the materials and the satisfaction of creating something beautiful, but many times I found myself feeling resistant to a project because it was not mine.  I think this phenomenon is one of the reasons why it has been so difficult to translate computer gaming to academic subjects and get kids to show the degree of enthusiasm they do for the games alone.  Regardless of the presence of attractive game identities, situated learning matrices, and supportive instructional communities in school-based gaming, ultimately, the ownership belongs not to the student but to the institution.  Theirs is the agenda that has priority.  I am not arguing that students should have no direction in their learning.  Certainly they must.  I am saying that a fundamental disjunction exists between the sort of learning that takes place in play, however sophisticated it becomes, and the sort of learning that has business as its goal.  By business, I do not mean only commercialism; I mean also the business of becoming an educated human being.

I hope that the effort to find common ground between gaming and academic learning continues to reach for success.  I would love to see it work.

Leave a Reply