I have never been a fan of video games. My generation just missed the cut-off for what I will call the “video game revolution.” The only video game I remember playing, as an adult, was Pong and the first incarnation of Mario Brothers. I don’t recall learning anything specific while I was playing these games and my fascination, if you could call it that, wore off rather quickly. The relevant emotional term that best characterizes my video game playing is frustrated. I’m not sure if it was my lack of hand-eye coordination or some other deformity that caused me not to play video games anymore. I got to a certain level in Mario Brothers and then I went no further. The villains were extremely mean and I could not effectively do away with them. How frustrating it was to see my son, he was about 8 or 9 at that time, get to the highest level and then beg me to try and match his success. At some point not too long after this I gave up playing video games and turned my attention to more pressing matters, like raising a family.
I could not relax and have fun while simultaneously playing a video game. The three activities did not fit well together in my life. My sons, on the other hand, find relaxation and fun synonymous with video games. My oldest son put his latest video game purchase on lay-away; Prototype. He was so excited to play this game after he received it that he traveled from Oceanside, in southern California, to Modesto to play this game on our high-definition television. The goal in this video environment is to stop the spread of a virus that is infecting a city; I think the city is New York. The main character in Prototype has morphed into a being that can change forms and assume the powers of others. When I asked my son if he had navigated through all the “levels” of the game he said, “Dad, there aren’t really any levels. It’s more like a goal. The goal is to stop the spread of the virus.” He was able to stop the spread of the virus, or in my out-dated lexicon, he got to the highest level.
The part about the “goal” stuck in my mind as I discussed Prototype with my son. I wrote a lengthy research paper about storytelling several years ago when I was taking TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) classes. There is a link between a plot in a story and the motivation to listen to or read the story. If you are not familiar with video games and you think that video games are just graphic visual displays, you are mistaken. In the video game Prototype, and I may be stretching the point here, occasionally there is some text to read like a chart or some dialogue bubbles. From a literacy standpoint, the text can be challenging to read, but it must be read in order to achieve success and stop the virus. The storyline in the video game Prototype is that the main character is trying to stop the spread of a deadly virus. This plot is engaging, at least to my son, because he was able to successfully stop the virus. You may be thinking, so what, but Prototype kept my son’s attention for a long time; about two weeks. The plot in a story is the problem that the characters have to solve or overcome. These plots mimic real life problems; after all, life may be viewed as negotiating a series of plots. So it is the nature of problems, or plots, which keep the player’s attention on action based video games, like Prototype.
This is the link to learning that the author of “Learning and Games” is making. Older learning theory posited that, “the mind works like a calculating device, something like a digital computer. On this view, humans think and learn by manipulating abstract symbols via logic like rules.”(Gee 21) Video games contain nothing like “abstract symbols.” The game Prototype is a visual extravaganza and there is nothing “abstract” about the visuals; my stomach got queasy when one of the characters jumped off of a skyscraper. The realistic visuals and engaging storyline are what motivates video game players to engage for extended periods playing video games. Updated theories of learning concur with this. According to Gee, “Newer work, however, argues that people primarily think and learn through experiences they have had, not through abstract calculations and generalizations.”(Gee 21) The connection to reality, although two dimensional, is realistic enough to mimic an actual human experience.
Not every video game provides a learning experience; I’m not suggesting that Prototype is an educational video game. The potential to use a video game format has never been more readily available than now. What I am suggesting is that in order to teach the student has to be engaged in the effort. Video games used in an effective manner may provide the motivation to learn in certain situations. Video games have been in existence for about thirty years and scholars have been theorizing about what constitutes learning for at least a thousand years (i.e. Aristotle, Quintillan). New theories of learning suggest that “experience” plays a part in our ability to retain what we learn. So, I am “game” to connect the new technology with current theories about learning retention.