Danish School of Education - home of ECGBL 2010

I love conferences; if nothing else, I always get to see things from new perspectives.

I am not expecting revolutionary breakthroughs, nor am I necessarily expecting to learn anything concrete; just being able to have a peak into other peoples work, ideas and conceptions is enough.

This in itself holds great value, I would argue.

Thus, my enthusiasm is (almost) always quite high when attending this or that conference. When the subject is as near and dear to me as games based learning (this, after all, is where my currently ongoing and complete wonderful journey took off), I am like the child in the candy store.

Simply love it.

So obviously I was greatly satisfied simply by participating at the European Conference on Games Based Learning, which this year was taking place at The Danish School of Education in Copenhagen.

With the conference just concluded, my head is full of thoughts, ideas, words and coffee, but I’ve pledged to jot things down in an attempt to capture my immediate feelings and sentiments (pledged to myself, that is).

As I walked away from the charming buildings housing the conference, my impressions seemed to center around three particular topics, which I will elaborate a bit upon in the remainder of this post.

An essential link

I’ll initiate with what currently occupies a large chunk of my attention; namely that of game literacy or, as José P. Zagal dubbed it, ludoliteracy. I happened to do a short presentation at the conference, where I touched upon exactly this, and you can see my presentation below:

If you had the patience to click through all of the above, you will see why I am going on about something, which might at first glance seem to be going in the wrong direction.

As my argument goes, we simply need to understand games in order to fully understand and be able to harness their potential in any games based learning scenario.

This also means that I am not missing a single opportunity to stress the importance of linking to the knowledge accumulated in the fields of game studies and game design. Games based learning consists of “games” and “learning”, but learning seems to me to have been given the higher priority; perhaps because researchers within the field were first and foremost interested in learning? Whatever the reasons, we simply sometimes tend to forget that it is just as much about understanding the game, their characteristics, special affordances, inner components – and so on.

I did go rambling about this issue earlier, where I concluded that ““teacher’s game literacy” is a highly important factor greatly influencing the potentials of including games in education (in all the many variants)”.

After the conference I feel even more certain that this is definitely the case. This goes for researchers and developers of learning games, but also the educators supposed to apply GBL in practice.

Challenging assumptions

We all make assumptions and even the best and most thorough of researchers are to some extent conducting their work in accordance with these underlying assumptions. Our preconceptions might get reinforced to such a degree that they establish a discursive hegemony and become the only valid way to see and talk about a topic – but this does NOT mean that they are universally true.

The field of GBL is just as riddled with these assumptions as any field of research, and a number of them was addressed during the conference:

  • Children have a high level of competency in playing digital games
  • COTS games difficult to employ in content based curriculum
  • All children enjoy playing digital games
  • If a game becomes a big enough phenomenon, we must work with it in schools
  • When new generations of teachers start teaching, things will solve themselves out
  • Games are inherently motivational

Despite their durability, we are able to challenge these assumptions, though, and this was stressed as essential by many speakers. I couldn’t agree more, as much of our potential progression depends on our willingness to continuously attempt to work, talk and think differently.

The most widespread and (perhaps) misused of the above assumptions, as it seems, is that of motivation.

When talking about GBL, most people take ”motivation” or ”fun” as their point of departure. It has thus become a popular habit in our “community” to automatically assume that students find games to be fun and motivating, thus providing a much desired catalyst for learning anything within the framework of the game. We find this argument everywhere, and even the best of us have heard ourselves talk about the potential motivating factors of introducing games in class.

Kids play games voluntarily all by themselves, so games must be motivating, right?

What is worth remembering, however, is that those performing game studies have not yet reached upon any consensus as to what exactly makes games motivating.

Take the highly discussed presentation that game designer and assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon, Jesse Schell, gave at this year’s Dice Summit (for those of you who somehow missed it, see it below – it is highly entertaining):

Schell is clearly making a case for extrinsic motivations in the form of achievements and rewards as the primary driver of player engagement. I am not one to pass judgment on his ideas at this time, as it doesn’t matter whether he is wrong or right.

What does matter is that the highly vibrant and dynamic community of video game researchers and bloggers quickly picked up on Schells talk, putting it under critical examination. Danish video game researcher Jesper Juul, among many, assumed a critical position, and the blog Critical Distance did a nice compilation of the perspectives. One argument was that extrinsic motivation in the form of rewards would be outgunned by intrinsic motivators in the long run, but many other notions was brought to the fore.

The point is that if these rather competent people are not able to explain what makes games motivating, how can we just somehow assume that they actually are? And if we do assume that games have the potential to motivate, we must make more of an effort to explain why.

…which throws me back to the preceding paragraph; to understand why games can be considered motivating, we must understand the game itself.

Should I bring a suggestion to the table I would look towards the simple, yet complex concept “interactivity”. Games are by some considered a “series of interesting choices” (to quote the famous game designer Sid Meier), and many players of games like to make choices and feel responsible for the corresponding actions within the game. In my experience, this also helps explain the situations when students involved with GBL are more motivated to work with the game; they feel empowered and in control of their own learning process.

As a side note, even if games are actually particularly motivating, we can’t just leave it at that. Motivation is not really that interesting in itself but must be directed in certain directions in order to support the specific learning goals. What good is it, that I am highly motivated – if not motivated for anything in particular? Or perhaps I am motivated to counter the teachers’ agenda? (a point also made in a great talk by Kieron Kirkland from Futurelab).

Integration or challenge?

My third and final observation regards the relations between our existing school practice and the (ideal) practice of GBL.

Some researchers see a (unbridgeable?) gap between these two, and may thus be inclined to deem GBL incompatible with formal educational settings.

But what if these “formal educational settings” are incompatible with the surrounding society? What if GBL may in some respects better support the needs of contemporary society than current curricular demands? What if we would be better off not trying to cram games into the existing framework, but instead mobilizing games in order to revise and challenge this framework?

I got carried away there, and may also be a bit naïve and unrealistically idealistic, but I am just reluctant to let down my visions and ambitions in this field. And hey, why not allow ourselves to be somewhat idealistic from time to time? Reach for the stars and all that mumbo-jumbo, right?

Our educational systems = supertankers?

The educational sector is often compared to a supertanker because of its immense size and inherent inertia. But here’s another metaphorical assumption which is not necessarily promoting what we want to achieve. If we promote the idea of a supertanker, we promote and reproduce the idea, that changing anything is effectively out of our reach.

The framework of education can be changed, even though it might obviously take both large amounts of time and hard work. We must ask the difficult questions and try, at least, to provide the complex answers.

Suzanne de Castell

This brings me back to the first keynote speaker of the conference, Suzanne de Castell, who made a great impression on me. Castell is doing intervention research, because – in her words – not intervening risks rendering her research ethically problematic.

I am paraphrasing here, but I would consider it equally ethically problematic if we know what would be the best solution – to challenge existing practice – but still choose the easiest solution – to integrate into existing practice, thereby reproducing it.

It is not always a matter of ultimate polarity, I know, and I often do end up being the pragmatic realist. But for now I allow myself to dream of a world, where we have the courage to go all the way. If nothing else, this fantasy might inform smaller changes.

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