Do we need games for learning?

I have again and again argued, that most learning games (or what we choose to call them at any point in time) are often quite disappointing.

At the same time, I still believe good (learning) games are relevant – as one tool among many.

There’s of course also the ongoing discussion whether or not it even makes sense to distinguish between games and learning games. All games are about learning something, and games can be extremely relevant in education without being actual learning games. Furthermore, in many learning games you end up spending too much time on learning something, that is external to playing the game.

Games like Papo & Yo, Cart Life, Papers Please, and (the elephant in the room) Minecraft are brilliant examples of games that are not built explicitly for learning purposes, but which are nonetheless challenging players intellectually and emotionally.

Regardless of this discussion, and regardless of my hopes for better games for learning, what we really need is not learning games.

Or any kind of games.

Or teaching materials or technology in general.

What we really need is not technology (as such), it’s better, more meaningful and relevant educations.

This might seem obvious, so why am I spending the time writing?

I am very concerned that we (again) end up perpetuating the mistaken belief that technology is some kind of holy saviour.

I see these overly optimistic headlines all around the world, stating that games or play or MOOCs or Flipped Learning or [whatever hypeword tomorrow brings]…will save education and eventually the world.

I don’t care much for such predictions. To be honest, I think it’s utter sensationalist nonsense.

To boil it down, tech will solve nothing. We may have new opportunities with new technologies, but it requires changes in the way we think, work and organize ourselves. Changes won’t just magically follow in the wake of technological innovations.

Here in Denmark, I’m part of a forum hosted by the Ministry of Education, where we are looking at the field of “digital teaching tools”. While I unequivocally applaud the initiative, these meetings often leave me confused, because what are we talking about? Do we just want better teaching tools/technologies? We do, of course, but I’m struggling to figure out how much emphasis we should really put on this, and how much we should put on changing the structures, cultures, goals and purposes of education.

If we think of games as nothing but more efficient means to simply transmit knowledge to the students, but otherwise change nothing, we’re not really getting anywhere. That would just be reinforcing the notion of students as recipients and consumers of content.

What is really important in education, then?

Many things are important, of course, and this is an important discussion to keep having. Should I capture as much as possible in as few words as possible, I’d say something like this:

Education should seek to create the best possible foundation for people to live rich and happy lives, by empowering children and young people to be in the world with other people, to make difficult decisions and to use technology to express themselves and solve meaningful problems.

There’s much more to it, of course, but I generally think about education as a way to learn how to be human, how to be social, and how to be and act in the world.

…and this is where we can really learn from games and (not least!) play.

The “magic circle” of play creates a safe space, where we can experiment with roles, with scenarios, with being in the world, with being together, and we can do so in creative ways driven by curiosity, excitement and joy. These activities can be structured like games, or assume a more loose, playful and less controlled structure.

Remembering Salen & Zimmerman’s definition, “play is free movement within a more rigid structure”.

Education then becomes a question of striking the balance between structure and freedom, with emphasis on the latter (if you ask me). The “free movement” is essential if we want students to take ownership of their own learning.

None of this is about technology. No, it’s much more important than that.

It’s about how we’re being humans. Together.

My playful dreams with games

Attending conferences aimed at the game industry is always fun, but also usually reminds me, that I probably need to clarify my relation to games.

It’s not that I personally mind my eclectic approach, working in several directions at once, it’s just that I rarely know how to convey a clear image of this in the short amount of time conference networking leaves you with (a phenomenon I was never too happy about in the first place).

“Are you a developer?” “No, I’m..”

…and then people are already gone, moving on to someone less confusing (and confused).

So here’s a humble attempt at describing my dreams with games – in a (relatively (who am I kidding?)) brief post (If nothing else, laying out my position is probably a good exercise for me) (and I will try to use less parentheses)..

Games in education

When I was preparing my Master’s Thesis back at Media Studies, around 2007, I was conflicted. Initially, I was kinda opposed to the idea of games having anything to prove. They are legitimate in and of themselves, damn it! I was and is vehemently opposed to any perception that sees games as nothing but trivial tools to reach goals outside the game, e.g. learning.

Even so, I moved into the field of games & learning. I started exploring how specific games (in the case of my thesis, “Global Conflicts: Palestine“) could be used in education, and what it means, how it challenges teacher/student relations etc. I didn’t have a clue what to expect, but was quite fascinated with what I found. Students considered “weak” in school participated heavily, and talked eloquently about the complex conflict. I mean…some students (almost) understood suicide bombers, because they talked to the mother of one such.

It was a both touching and eyeopening experience, and I knew I wanted to go further down this path. I also believed, that people knew most of this already. As it turned out, most people didn’t, and I figured I had no other option than being self-employed, trying to navigate and mediate between game developers, researchers, educators etc. I thought of “bridging gaps” as one of my primary goals – and I still do.

I quickly realized the need to broaden my scope, and early on, I started working with all kinds of “games in education“; learning games, “entertainment” games, games as “learning tools”, analysing games, making games etc.

By now, five years in, I remain heavily interested in all aspects of games in education. I am involved in several exciting projects, and I might start spending more time on creating better conditions for developers of “learning games” (or whatever you fancy calling them). I have also encountered and worked with more general challenges facing the use of digital media in education, and I spend much time encouraging conversations across domains & an increased focus on sharing knowledge.

More than anything, though, I’m interested in working towards changing the way we think about and practice education. How do we make it much more meaningful for anybody involved? How do we create better opportunities for more people to live rich lives, including being an active part of society? In this regard, games serve as a source of inspiration more than an actual tool. It’s not about the games themselves, it’s about how they can inspire us to think differently about education and learning.

If you want to dive deeper into this, James Paul Gee is probably one of themost vocal & prominent proponents of understanding games as an ideal framework for learning and problem solving:

Summing up, you probably couldn’t point to an area of “games & learning” that doesn’t interest me (that’s not entirely true, because edutainment-style drill & practice rarely gets me fired up. That’s an exception from the rule).

Games in society

Spending a lot of time and energy on arguing for the inclusion of games in education, I am frequently engaged in broader discussions on the role and perception of games in society.

If I have to say it again, I’ll do that. Just for the sake of extreme clarity. I bloody love gamesNot because they can help us achieve stuff, that can be tested. First and foremost because games allow us to do interesting things, go interesting places, and in some (albeit rare) cases, allow us to explore what it means to be human. Or sometimes, it’s just about being as stupid and silly as possible (looking at you, Saints Row).

That’s all fine.

So many people still don’t really understand or care about games, and a (surprisingly) large portion of society are still attracted to the sensationalist headlines of games causing all kinds of harm, and then this happens (again and again):

Oh no, you didn't...
Oh no, you didn’t…

On a less dramatic scale, many are simply happy to maintain the most stereotypical perception of games and gamers, even though the demography of people playing games is shifting. Ian Bogost has a nice take on this:

“Soon gamers will be the anomaly. If we’re very fortunate, they’ll disappear altogether. Instead we’ll just find people, ordinary people of all sorts. And sometimes those people will play videogames. And it won’t be a big deal, at all.”

At the same time, we need to stop defending games at all costs. We need to stop pretending there’s no possible consequences of playing games. We need to abandon the notion that “it’s just a game” as the only answer to any kind of criticism. Hey, if games have no impact whatsoever, how could they be so fascinating? Let’s talk more about why we love games, how they challenge us intellectually, connect with us on an emotional level, and what it means that games are such a huge part of culture and our lives.

I would love to do more to work challenging assumptions and exploring the concept of “meaningful conversations” about games. Most people simply don’t know how to talk about games, or at least they tend not to do so. I have been contemplating events, that bring together a much broader audience than, say, game developers or educators. I’ve also had the pleasure of discussing this with the most brilliant people:

 

A playful life

What I would like more than anything, though, is to contribute to a movement towards a society, where playfulness is an ideal (one ideal, not the ideal. I don’t care much for dichotomies between games/play and other media/activites).

A society where something like this happens more often:

Or this:

Or…oh, you get the picture.

A society where “play” is not relegated to the realm of children, and where playing is something we all do – in a multitude of ways, in all kinds of situations. This is not about games per se, but about fostering a culture, where play is not merely tolerated, but embraced and appreciated.

Among many other domains, education would benefit SO much from allowing play to unfold. Just think about the relationship between play and creativity, curiosity, exploration and experimentation.

…but it’s really not, first and foremost, about using play as an instrument. It’s about acknowledging the inherent value of a “playful state of mind”.

This line of thinking is not new, and many brilliant people are already fighting this important fight (in different, but playful ways). Look towards people like Thomas Vigild, Stine Liv Johansen, Carsten Jessen, Bernard De Koven, Zuraida Buter (whom I recently dubbed “play evangelist”. Actually, all these people qualify for that label).

Those are just some of the people, that inspire me on (more or less) a daily basis. Then there’s all the wonderful game companies, organizations & collectives like the lovely Copenhagen Game Collective.

How do we encourage a more playful approach to life?

So this is all very broad, you say? Yeah. Well, it’s an adventure, and I keep seeing interesting patterns, overlaps and new connections. It all makes sense to me (from time to time).

Any hooks in some of this long tale, that made you want to talk? Get in touch (protip – Twitter works better than anything).

Collective decency

Some time ago, I watched a documentary on wartime photographers.

One of the participants (sadly, I’ve forgotten his name) talked about documenting 9/11, and more than photographs, he was particularly awestruck with the ways people took great risks to help each other.

He called it “collective decency”.

That phrase stuck with me.

I keep thinking about it.

In society today there’s a widespread focus on (among other things) technology, economy, growth, efficiency, productivity, creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship…and the list goes on.

Nothing wrong with those as such.

The problem is, that all too often, (collective) decency is not among them.

I’m not romanticizing days gone by, and I’m not saying that decency is non-existent.

Not at all.

I see it all around me, every day.

I’m merely thinking, that it could be much more prominently positioned as something highly valued by society.

Excuse me for being a little idealistic (and naive, perhaps), but in the end, what is society worth, if it does not consist of people, who are first and foremost decent towards each other? The most important is not education (in itself), jobs, money, anything.

It’s how we’re humans in a world filled with other humans.

I don’t have answers, and these are all just my humble laymans considerations.

I would love to include this in more of my work, and the natural choice for me would be to look at play and games.

More and more digital games make us think about what it means to be human, and how we choose to interact with the world and people around us.

Games for Change are very active proponents of this.

Norwegian teacher Tobias Staaby wrote wonderfully about teaching ethics using The Walking Dead (but in Norwegian).

It might be even more explicitly illustrated by the growing interest in physical games, local multiplayer, folk games merged with technology etc. Games that are not about looking at screens, but looking at and interacting directly with people.

Why did people think I was a murderer (in Train Mafia)? What happens when you push strangers (a little too much) in Joust?

Joust!

Oh, and LARPs.

Many games are about nothing else than playing with interaction, exploring how we exist in social relations.

I’d love to investigate a “playful decency“.