Bridging gaps

Credits: Igor Bespamyatnov

…is a major part of what I’m always trying to do. (Using an actual bridge to illustrate the metaphor is cheesy, I know, but bridges look kinda cool, so bear with me).

I am not certain if I am actually particularly suited for doing so, but I am sure as hell infatuated with the core concepts of interdisciplinarity and sharing knowledge across boundaries.

I am convinced that many barriers and difficulties could be reduced, if not removed, if we were to a greater extent able to forge solutions by fusing knowledge from across different fields. This is why I maintain a vision of knowledge and insights not limited by any kind of boundaries, but rather flowing freely – even though I acknowledge the obvious naivity of the entire idea. It is an ideal situation never fully realizable, but nevertheless worth aiming for.

Right from the outset of this crusade of mine, I have been attempting to show how different areas of both research and practice, as well as a wide array of stakeholders could greatly benefit from establishing and maintaining dialogue.

Understanding games >< games in learning

Recently I have especially been considering the possible gap between those studying and writing about video games, trying to more fully understand games, and those preoccupied with the inclusion of games in learning and teaching. The two approaches may for the remainder of this post be labelled “understanding games” and games in learning”, respectively, and they each encapsulate both researchers, commentators, developers, practitioners etc.

The desire to understand games is a goal for the many researchers in the very diverse field of game studies, independent bloggers, dedicated sites, journalists, game developers and so on. These people play games, write about games, talk about games, develop games – they probably love games (just like I do). Among them, they try to identify and understand everything from game mechanics, rules, visuals, narrative and technology to video games culture and video game players.

There is an overlap, obviously, but many of the people working with games in learning are not part of the above group, and oftentimes they are not even aware of the existence of such a (loosely defined) community. I must quickly add, that this depiction is both rough and a bit unfair. Many researchers investigating “games in learning” have been paying close attention to game studies and the “nature of games” (e.g. James Paul Gee’s “What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy” and the more recent “Ludoliteracy: Defining, Understanding, and Supporting Games Education” by José P. Zagal). Despite important exceptions, many researchers, consultants and practitioners tend to focus more on learning than on games and studies of games.

What worries me is that these two fields may be moving forward along separate and somewhat isolated tracks, when they should actually be closely interrelated and even intertwined:

Two separate tracks?
How do we make these fields interact- like cogs?

This might become a very critical issue, if not addressed properly soon. The tendency to look at “games in learning” without paying enough attention to “understanding games” can be identified in several contexts, and I recently experienced it at the IMAGINE roundtable monday, where many participants were eager to talk about “games in learning”, and a bit less inclined to talk about “understanding games”.

GLS vs GDC

The Brainy Gamer - brilliant writing on video games

Now one of my favorite bloggers, The Brainy Gamer (also known by the somewhat more common name “Michael Abbott”) wrote another enlightening piece, where he touches upon some of this.

He desribes his participation in the Games+Learning+Society Conference, which is probably one of the most prominent conferences on games and learning, and many extremely knowledgeable people were among the speakers. It appeared, though, that the audience did not really share the insight about games:

Richard Lemarchand, lead designer for both Uncharted games, asked a simple question today: “How many of you have played Uncharted 2?”

When I heard him ask the same question at GDC a few months ago, nearly every hand in the room shot up. When he posed it again this morning at the Games, Learning, and Society Conference, the response fell somewhere between a handful and a smattering. Such is the difference between GDC and GLS – two conferences devoted, in very different ways, to games.

Where the participants at GDC (Game Developers Conference) are passionately interested in games, it would seem that the participants at GLS are more obsessed with learning. Fair enough, teachers and other people involved in education should of course have a keen interest in learning, but this does not remove the importance of “understanding games”, which Abbott points to by asking an essential question:

How can we best explore, understand, and harness the unique power of games – and the possibilities we’ve yet to identify – in our teaching and learning?

Where’s the beef?

If it is not entirely clear why I consider it so immensely important to somehow merge the two fields, allow me to elaborate.

Ludoliteracy - how can we teach about games without understanding them?

Let’s start with what may be understood as “game literacy” or “ludoliteracy“, as the notion is dubbed by José P. Zagal. This literacy is a subset of “digital literacy“, and the main focus is on supporting student’s ability to play, critically understand and analyze, and produce games. What are the core concepts of games, what does it mean that games are “rule-based systems”, what makes up the gameplay, how do games tell stories, what makes games appealing, how do games relate to  other cultural modes of expression, what does it mean to “play responsibly” – all questions that could very well be asked and discussed in the classroom. Just as we are approaching books, movies, advertising, the internet etc, we cannot just expect children and young people to develop this critical literacy by themselves. It quickly becomes clear, though, that doing something like this makes great demands on the ludoliteracy of the teacher.

Moving on to another perspective and a recommendable report by Futurelab, where games are described as “teaching tools”. This mirrors “game based learning” approaches, where games are used as didactic tools to support learning in all kinds of subject areas. This covers another way of using games in education, yet the need to know the principles of games remains unchanged. In an article on game literacy, David Buckingham and Andrew Burn argue that understanding games must be considered a prerequisite in order to teach with games:

Education about the media should be seen as an indispensable prerequisite for education with or through the media.

Likewise, if we want to use computer games or the internet or other digital media to teach, we need to equip students to understand and to critique these media: we cannot regard them simply as neutral means of delivering information, and we should not use them in a merely functional or instrumental way.

Games have different affordances when compared to other types of media, and it is these characteristics, that (in some cases) make them especially suited as learning tools. If those people supposed to use games don’t understand games and their core principles and mechanics, then how would it be possible to harness the full potential?

Whether we are interested in ludoliteracy, games as teaching tools or games in learning in general, we must strive to develop an understanding of games as the foundation of our work:

We must strive to understand games!

One of the obstacles hindering this approach would be that it is not entirely clear what it means to “understand games”. Most people trying to do so would probably agree with video game researcher Espen Aarseth, who said that “we are only just beginning, so don’t expect the world at this stage”. Or with Michael Abbot’s comment “heck, we’re still trying to figure out what game criticism is and should do”.

That much is true; we are just beginning. But this should certainly not prevent us from perceiving the described fields as closely related and interdependent. I don’t know exactly what to do, and I’m afraid easy solutions are not among our choices.

Interesting things are going on, though, and among these are the 4th European Conference on Games Based Learning taking place in Copenhagen in the fall. I am especially looking forward to the minitrack “The Teacher’s Role, Identity and Presence in Game-Based Learning“, where it is asked “how teachers’ game literacy influence game-based teaching?”. My answer, based on the argument permeating this post, would be that “teacher’s game literacy” is a highly important factor greatly influencing the potentials of including games in education (in all the many variants)(UPDATE: having participated in the conference, I wrote about how it is crucial to strengthen the weak link between “understanding games” and “games in learning”)

All difficult (and bloody fascinating) stuff. I can only urge you to:

Let's think (by Howdy, I'm H. Michael Karshis)

Impressions from Prague

Feels like looking in a mirror

I thrive on curiosity.

It’s my primary source of energy, and I feel an intense desire to keep uncovering new ground, developing new solutions and approaching challenges in new ways.

I’m considering myself to be very much on the right track, but should that make me rest on my laurels? What laurels?

Is curiousity the path to happiness?

On a personal level, resting, slowing down, settling, just seems awfully boring. A bit scary, even. This resonates with research made by professor Dr. Todd Kashdan, positing that “when we are open to new experiences and when we relish the unknown, positive events linger longer and we extract more pleasure and meaning from them.”

On a professional level, it seems plain stupid. What would I benefit by doing so? How could I possibly progress if I lock myself in some rigid position?

Being on the right track is in no way equal to being “right” or having found any kind of “truth”. It just means that I might be moving in the right direction. For all I know, that may be wrong.

My curiosity indulges me to keep exploring and challenging my perceptions, seeking inspiration, impressions, ideas, especially from people with whom I might not fully agree, or who are just seeing things differently.

As an average human being, I am sometimes drawn towards concensus, towards people and attitudes not diverging from how I feel and think.

In a strange way, this always annoys me somewhat, making me feel lazy and narrow-minded.

Go to Prague

Curious about Prague?

Travelling helps; if doing so with an open mind, that is.

IMAGINE (Increasing Mainstreaming of Games In Learning Policies)

Yesterday I participated in a roundtable workshop on game based learning, which was held in Prague in relation to the IMAGINE project.

Participants were spread across Europe from Spain and Italy to Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania and Hungary. In addition, the roundtable boasted an impressive diversity regarding the background of participants, as both researchers, game/software developers, practitioners etc. were represented. This in itself is making for an interesting point of departure, as it certainly guarantees the presence of a wide array of experiences, perceptions and areas of interest.

…and that was indeed the case yesterday. The atmosphere was informal and relaxed, people most obliging, ideas were very willingly shared and Roger Blamire from European Schoolnet proved to be a splendid moderator.

Introduction to IMAGINE

But what was discussed, and was it possible at all to reach upon any conclusions?

(Disclaimer: Most of this was scribbled down on the train, still on my way home, and these are my first unprocessed thoughts from the discussions. They may very well be quite a mess, but now you’re warned. I’ll do more structured discussions in the next couple of days.)

Concrete examples

My presentation - what's with my facial expression?

The day kicked of with a number of brief presentations, where developers, practitioners and researchers shared their many interesting experiences. I was lucky enough to contribute, but to me, many of the other presentations were, of course, far more interesting.

It was inspiring, for example, to hear about games being developed to support learning in different subject areas, and how games have been applied quite differently in different countries.

Why even bother?

Luckily people seemed to agree, that games can contribute. This was a basic premise of the debate, yet it was not completely clear as to how people saw this contribution manifest itself.

On the IMAGINE website, it is argued that games can contribute to “the development of valuable skills such as”:

  • strategic thinking
  • planning; communication
  • application of numbers
  • negotiating skills
  • group decision-making
  • data-handling
  • eye-hand coordination

I agree that games can be used to train the above skills, which are considered pivotal in today’s society and in the notion of “digital literacy“. It was not until the end of the day, however, that we had a brief, but critical review of whether or not games automatically teach those skills (they don’t, obviously). One speaker told about a really fascinating study, where World of Warcraft was used to counter bullying and antisocial behaviour, though.

In contrast, we heard several interesting examples about how specific games helped students learn about different subject matter, e.g. the European Union, historical events and relations, and economy and investments.

Barriers

How do we beat the obstacles?

This was a reoccuring theme. How do we overcome the different barriers preventing the desired pick-up of games in education? Why are games not gaining traction as valuable learning tools?

Some participants pointed to a lack of understanding at political levels, arguing that we need firm political backing in order to gain sufficient momentum. If our efforts are not supported by formal institutions at top levels, no real progress could be made, the proponents of this position stated.

Others argued that approaches should be more bottom-up, supporting teachers at the level of practice.

Even others maintained, that commercial games are too long and complex, and that specially designed games should instead be readily available to support learning in very specific subject matters.

Who’s right? They probably all are. These are complex matters, and no one factor could possibly explain everything. On the contrary, all of the above components – and more – must be understood in order to address the challenges ahead.

Teacher’s role

Many discussion strands focused on the role of the teacher, which is quite understandable: they are, after all, important gatekeepers in the world of education.

Again, diverging opinions were ample.

I believe that everybody shared the belief, that teachers are essential when using games in education; it is not just a matter of getting students to play games. The experience of playing must be qualified by teachers in an ongoing dialogue with the students.

In my view, there was a somewhat unfortunate tendency to undervalue the capabilities of teachers. Several speakers argued that teachers know next to nothing about games, and thus our ambition should be to provide as easily accessible and simple games as possible.

Of course, few teachers are able to implement games without supplementary training, support and access to different kinds of ressources. This does not mean, however, that we should consider teachers helpless, apathetic or unambitious.

Ambitions

In continuation of the above, I was a bit alienated and worried about the inclination towards “small and simple games” expressed by a number of participants.

Not that I necessarily despise “small and simple games”, but I do consider them to be a somewhat primitive and reductive interpretation of what games are about.

If we, for instance, want to work with games in a digital or games literacy perspective, it would be a grave misunderstanding to primarily focus on “small and simple games”. How could we argue that these games are representative of games in general? And if they are not, then what is the value of narrowly aiming at these? How should we teach students about games, their mechanics and characteristics, if we only dare to look at the most primitive species?

If the ambition is to use games to teach different subjects, we should be equally aware of the dangers related to “small and simple games”. I can’t help but to recall the infamous edutainment-genre, which has come under heavy criticism by both researchers (see Egenfeldt-Nielsen or Jenkins, Squire & Tan), developers, practitioners and kids alike. In some situations, of course, the simple drill-and-practice “games” may prove very successful, yet they are neither as entertaining nor as educating as games can be.

Whichever approach we prefer, we should dare to be ambitious, also on behalf of the teachers. We should not limit ourself to the most simple of games, but keep exploring the potential of using “real” and complex games.

More than one approach?

The somewhat blurred and divergent perceptions of why games should be included in educational settings can, to some degree at least, be explained by another unclarified issue, namely that of differing definitions.

What do we mean when talking about games in education or game based learning?

Well, I believe this question is what lies at the core of our diverging perspectives.

We simply did not agree what we were talking about. This was no surprise, though, as no common frame of reference exist in this field, and I am frequently stumbling upon similar confusion.

As already discussed, some argued that we should narrow it down to games so simple, that we could realistically hope for teachers to easily adopt them. Others seemed to prefer limiting it to using games specifically developed for teaching and learning purposes.

I am trying hard to see how it could make sense to narrow the scope, as it would certainly make things a lot easier. I just can’t seem to get a grasp.

Number Eaters may perfectly well be the right choice - in some situations

I, for one, apply a broad and inclusive definition, where I try to make room for any possible application of games in learning contexts. I am convinced that it would be unfortunate to exclude complex games, or reduce our work to comprise “serious games”. My very broad definition can only exist at a purely theoretical level, of course, as we must be a whole lot more specific when doing practical work with games. If we want to train simple math, simple drill-and-practice games might suffice, while we might prefer Global Conflicts: Palestine, when we want to support a balanced view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When we strive to inspire “creative writing, speaking and listening”, Tim Rylands magnificient use of Myst could be the example to follow. If, on the other hand, we want to develop a critical game literacy, GTA IV, World of Warcraft, Batman: Arkham Asylum, or The Sims could be valuable and legitimate possibilities.

GTA IV - would you dare to use this in class?

The result would be, that we must acknowledge that working with games in education comprises a wide array of different methods and approaches fulfilling a correspondingly wide array of purposes and goals. The choice must always depend on what you want to achieve in the specific situation; we cannot determine this from the top.

Recommendations

The day was concluded with a group session, where we attempted to converge on the most important recommendations for teachers, policy makers/shapers and developers.

You may have guessed it; this was no easy exercise.

I am not completely aware as to what our group ended up recommending, but we did talk about increased awareness towards strenghtening dialogue between all relevant stakeholders.

Another group emphasized the “paramount importance” of putting pressure on ministries and relevant decision makers in order to convince these key stakeholders to support the use of games.

The last recommendation I would mention, was suggesting the development of an online repository, where teachers could find and share ideas, experiences, concrete games etc. I wholly support this idea, and it is to some extent what we are currently trying to do with Spilskole.dk. I would gladly contribute to a repository in English, which could benefit teachers across Europe, whether it be as a wiki, a social network, a comprehensive site – or something quite different.

Gathering recommendations

Moving on

Of course, this refers to me and trip back from Prague. It also refers to IMAGINE and the field of game based learning. We must keep moving, keep challenging what we think we know, and how we believe things should be done.

Even though I am not ready to leave my methods, ideas and approaches behind, I am always ready to revise them thoroughly. The debate yesterday gave me some impetus to do so, and I will continue to seek dialogue and fresh perspectives.

Whatever we do, we should keep sharing in what must be a process of constant iterations.

I, for one, will remain very open to creative partnerships, participation in relevant projects, exchanging knowledge and ideas – whatever it takes.