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What's Next? Learning researcher James Gee on games in school
What's Next? Learning researcher James Gee on games in school Exclusive
September 3, 2013 | By Patrick Miller

[Ahead of November's GDC Next, GDC's Director of Online Community Patrick Miller reached out to many games industry luminaries to see where they think the future of video games is headed. This interview is the third installment of a multi-part series that will run up until shortly before the 'future of games' conference, which takes place in Los Angeles, CA from November 5-7, co-located with the App Developers Conference.]

When we play games, we're mastering systems to solve problems for fun -- and so, naturally, games hold immense potential for education, not just entertainment. That's why James Paul Gee, Arizona State University professor of Literacy Studies and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays, thinks games are a crucial part of the future of education.

Patrick Miller: Could you tell me a little bit more about the work you've done with video games and and education? What can we learn about learning from video games?

James Paul Gee:Video games are at heart problem-solving spaces with copious feedback and clear "win states". Of necessity, developers must create good problem-based learning, or go out of business. If players could not learn them, they would not play them. Video games incorporate good learning principles, principles well supported by research on learning in Cognitive Science.

These principles include things like: order problems well so players face early problems that are generative of good approaches to harder problems later (this is just good level design); lower the cost of failure so players will explore and take risks; make the problem-solving challenging but doable (at the edge of a player’s "regime of competence"); give language and information "just in time" (when players can put it to use and see how it applies) or "on demand" (when players ask for and can use larger blocks of information); integrate learning and assessment and assess all along the line (within the game, not after it is over like a test in school); encourage lots of practice by integrating basic skills under larger meaningful goals and actions; encourage the social aspects of learning via collaboration and competition; and make player’s choices and decisions really matter.

Since today’s schools focus on facts and information and not problem-solving, school reformers have become quite interested in game-based learning as a way to have learners use facts, skills, and information as tools for solving problems in meaningful ways. In a global world replete with risks and interacting complex systems, we need problem-solvers, not fact-reciters and test-takers.

PM: Is your research focused on what the mainstream game industry is putting out, or do you find yourself looking elsewhere? What works have you found the most relevant (either personally, or specifically to your research)?

JG: My research deals almost entirely with commercial games. Many of the games made for education or other impact areas have not been very good, because too often real game designers did not design them. At heart what makes a game good is that the game’s game mechanics (what you do) fits seamlessly with the game’s "content" (problems to be solved).

Finding this magic match is an art not a science. Games like Flower, Brothers, Thomas Was Alone, and DragonBox, in the independent space, show good marriages between game mechanics and problem solving in very basic and clear ways because they are so stripped down. By the way, DragonBox is a game to teach algebra, but can hold its own with any downloadable game as entertainment.

PM: From my perspective, it seems that academia in general has been rather reluctant to engage deeply with video games (either as text to study, or virtual space, or from any other angle); has that been your experience when presenting your work to your peers? Is there a clear connection to industry, or does the work stand on its own?

JG: There is now in fact an absolute mania to bring games to schools, museums, community centers, and after-school spaces. Lots of government agencies are making games, and the MacArthur Foundation is supporting two public schools entirely based on game-based learning. The problem is that when games go to school, they can either be used as paradigm-breaking devices for creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration, or they can be used just to make the school’s skill-and-drill more motivating (what I have called "chocolate on broccoli games").

Furthermore, games for learning is now a market space in which companies large or small are prone to sell schools what they want, rather than what they should have to really improve the learning and lives of our children.

PM: Tell me more about the difference between "chocolate on broccoli" games and the paradigm-breaking ones; what distinguishes one from the other? Is it a matter of knowledge of craft, or something deeper?

JG: "Chocolate on broccoli" games take a task like rote memorization or repetitious skill-and-drill, and make it more entertaining. A paradigm-breaking game moves schooling away from "drill and kill" to problem-solving, innovation, modding, and mastery.

For example, imagine an algebra game that has players shoot the answers to equations to get a high score -- the game mechanic (shooting) and the content (algebra) have nothing deep to do with each other. Now consider the game DragonBox, where the game mechanic is centered on cancelling and balancing the images on two sides of a box.

The game mechanic is integral to the content (balancing equations) and brings out some deep and aesthetic properties of the rules by which algebra manipulates equations. In fact, it is not until the middle of the game that players realize they are doing algebra. In the game, players are practicing as in skill and drill, but with real understanding of the nature of equations and while feeling they are not just doing rote tasks but solving intriguing problems.

PM: Sometimes it seems like the best ideas in tech and games simply didn't happen at the right time. Is there anything you've come across in video games that you think was too early to succeed?

JG: I do not advocate just using games in classrooms. Rather, I advocate recruiting the sorts of learning design that games use. Such learning in school can and should make use of all sorts of technologies (including books, talk, and social media). Games are one good platform among others, and should be integrated into larger learning systems that recruit other tools and create good social and collaborative learning, problem solving, and production and not just consumption on the part of students.

One great aspect of games is "modding" and a "modding stance" towards all their learning and their lives should be a goal for all students. The issue is not really that any technologies came "too early". The issue is schools have not usually made good use of any of the available technologies. Many classrooms still use computers mainly for typing clean drafts of papers and have one computer in a classroom. Today, most schools make a mess of the Internet as a learning tool.

However, there is a revolution coming that will be harder for schools to ignore. More and more states and school systems want curricula and textbooks delivered digitally on a tablet device. They want this to save money, since publishers charge so much for printed textbooks. But digital texts will mean books in school will become multi-media, multi-modal, customized, and crowd-sourced. This may be a real revolution and games will very much be in the mix.

PM: It's interesting to me that you connect games and their teachable capabilities with "modding" and talk about Makers; can you explain that a little more?

JG: Just like writing (production) is the higher value-added aspect of literacy, so, too, design is the higher value-added part of gaming. Games have long come with software by which they can be modded and there are now lots of products that support game design for young people (GameStar Mechanic and Kudo). Today there is a Maker Movement in which digital tools exist through which "everyday people" can make almost anything, whether it is digital music, video, games, news, citizen science, or whatever. Fab Labs let people manufacture things with digital printers and extractors.

People are becoming experts in lots of areas without formal credentials, often learning on the Internet rather than in school. But good gamers already play games with a "modding" or "design" attitude. They think about how the rules in a game interact so that they can accomplish goals, do things their way, and maybe even find emergent properties in the rules.

PM: How do the lessons of modding/makers change the classroom education? What's the benefit?

JG: Students should be producing in school, not just consuming. They should be working collaboratively to solve real and hard problems. They should be "modding" the curriculum, redesigning it for themselves and others. Good game designers produce a well-mentored, well-designed problem space (the software) and help produce and enable interest-driven groups on the Internet that discuss, research, reflect on, mod, and theorycraft the game.

This software, and the socially-driven discussion, learning, and productions sites together, are what I call the "Big G game" (software plus learning community). The Sims has, for example, enabled a massive amount of online interest-driven discussion, design, production, writing, and research. Players design things for the game (clothes, houses, environments) and give each other challenges to see if they can play the game in certain ways that are particularly challenging or illuminate a particular theme (poverty). Civilization and many other games have done the same.

PM: You're also interested in games as a way to harness collective intelligence; it certainly seems to me that there is immense potential for people to design similar games-as-distributed-problem-solving given the right problems (and the right designers). What other problems do you think could benefit from the collective intelligence approach?

JG: More are on the way. The problems open to such an approach are numerous and include: the connections among neurons in the brain, types of galaxies (see Galaxy Zoo), tragedy of the commons situations (common in environmental problems), predicting storms or terrorist attacks, urban renewal, solving highly complex mathematical problems, new ways to handle federal, state, and school budgets, and a great many problems in technology and industry (which are already crowd-sourced). One could even use collective intelligence to learn new designs for video games and new designs for schooling.

Registration is now open for GDC Next and the co-located ADC. The first 500 attendees who sign up can save over 30% on ADC, GDC Next, or a combined VIP Pass. For all the latest news on GDC Next, subscribe for updates via Facebook, Twitter, or RSS. Also, check out the previous 'What's Next' interviews with Raph Koster and Chris Pruett

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(Photo credit: Scott Traylor @360KID)

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