The Case Against Gaming as a Mainstream Tool for Learning

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 19, 2008 11:16 pm
PostPost subject: The Case Against Gaming as a Mainstream Tool for Learning
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I see serious fever in gaming when compared with the larger issue of play—which is undergoing an increase in interest in the field of brain science. I will admit that there is ‘literacy’ in game-playing, but in terms of the quality of the relationship between kids and computers, gaming may end up being little more than a Las Vegas slot machine— with the game companies having the ‘house advantage.’

Here some thoughts.

The gaming industry, of course, is very excited about the prospect of gaming becoming a central player in education. But the assumption that the learning culture somehow becoming open enough to embrace gaming as an important learning model is misguided. Dame Education is a fickle lady. I doubt that Mr. Gaming has what it takes to win the affection of Dame Education. Let’s look closely at the suitor.

Mr. Gaming is an addict and he is an addictive influence on children of all ages. Games are a huge time eater (much higher in cost than TV viewing). Games become a full time, open-ended commitment, a consequence that catches many of the most attentive parents off guard. Games are unhealthy, requiring little or no movement on the part of ‘users’ who can play games mechanically for hours.. From the standpoint of brain science, a life form that engages in little or no movement, developmentally speaking, does not have self-preservation as a high priority.

Games involve pseudo social engagement that is actually antisocial and isolating. Antisocial and intolerant language used by gamers during ‘play’ is seldom challenged by game monitors, and usually overlooked.

Games are activities unto themselves. Beating the game is everything. Playing is repetitive. There is no transfer of learning in terms of motivation toward a higher purpose—like volunteering for a local charity, for example, or getting up out from behind the computer on one’s own volition to visit a friend. Gaming assumes an extravagance, a life of disposable hours, based on free time and self- indulgence.

But for argument’s sake, let’s say that the gaming corporations, with the billions of dollars now pouring into their war chests from investors, were able to make an offer to schools that was just too sweet for them to pass up. That scenario is not far-fetched at all. Businesses have a fantastic track record at convincing schools to buy into all kinds of dubious products in the name of fund-raising and education. Businesses seed the bed with generous giveaways. The people selling games and designing educational themes or elements into them view games emerging as a life-saving panacea so intelligent in its conception as to trump even the most entertaining or resourceful of teachers—not so far-fetched a vision, either. For even now, at this advanced stage of standardized learning, teachers have become weak; they are no longer challenged or motivated to design individual recipes for creative lessons and experiences. Just imagine when work-horse teachers are told that a new computer game will be ‘the new master design-teacher’. The human teacher (presumably female statistically speaking), who will feel no deep affinity to participate with the new game-teacher, would rather facilitate the game than actually play it, and simply record the progress of each student as he or she moves from level to level. At a time when even pre-school teachers need permission or encouragement to play with their preschoolers, it is not hard to see classroom teachers all the way through high school perceiving games as a welcome escape from the daily grind.

Whatever benefits there are to city building or world-saving games, they are ultimately self-absorbing like Sudoko, crosswords, or jigsaw puzzles. All is reflexive activity; no articulation, self- expression, or imaginings are invited in this shared experience. In the end, the script and the scope of the game are someone else’s reality, someone else’s version of life. Just like a movie, little in it can transfer to the real life culture with any degree of immediacy or redeeming value, other than the selling of pop culture celebrities and products. Perhaps the game may turn out to be the 21st century 3-D comic book. Even if there is something re-deeming about gaming, the overriding fact is that the child loses himself in the process—so much for child development.

During school time, use of gaming implies a state of learning that is as suspended in animation as a patient hooked up to an EKG machine. Instead of thriving on communication and content, the classroom becomes a scene reminiscent of Coma in which bodies hang inert and lifeless for a higher purpose. Anybody who has watched young people ‘play’ on the computer for hours on end can only conclude that the movements of the mouse encased in the right hand amount to a loop, an unending state of involuntary twitching. Only the most cynical of educators could rationalize this as beneficial.

I am exaggerating, of course. But my point is that any kind of content housed in any kind of machine could be called a time-saver (think: a way to control larger and larger numbers of stir-crazy kids.) This would amount to a hoax, a way to get the job done without addressing the human challenges of the classroom.

How would computer games, if justified, be integrated into the school day? Well, of course, this activity, even in the name of education, would have to be limited to 10 or 15 minutes per class. This could not fly—anybody knows that that would be like asking boys to eat one potato chip. Just imagine, once the forbidden chip is chomped, the disappointment and energy crisis resulting from the transition to the real school day

Perhaps the greatest failure of our education culture has been the inability to train and create consummate, compelling teachers who command the art and nature of communication. That is a great leap yet to be made. If games were to become a permanent staple of education—cost, convenience, control—you would have a C- learning culture in which adult contact with the young and character have no role to play. The vision of a learning culture fixed in the architecture of software and pixels has to be one of the most Orwellian of visions. Think: an elaborate bird or gerbil toy.

As a parent of three boys who have been subdued and deeply influenced by the syncopations of the mouse click, I can only cringe. As something of a play pioneer in education, I know some things about teachers, kids, and the school culture. The idea of moving games into place, into the curriculum, may be more difficult than creating democracy in Iraq. But it could be done with the help of a learning culture that is already cowed and bullied by political policy and administrators more pleased with power than with the survival of authentic pedagogy.

I see no indication from game enthusiasts that they are recognizing the liabilities and limitations of online gaming behavior. I don’t see them considering—let alone conceding—a major more challenging fact of life. The learning culture—its teachers, its policies, its methods—remains impervious to change.

Whatever evolves on the computer in terms of education and content must accept two facts:

1) The wall of the learning culture wall is as thick as Arctic ice. (uh oh bad analogy) Games will have to be equipped with an icebreaker to gain access into the citadel before the affections of Dame Education are won.

And 2) by design and definition of healthy learning, whatever happens on the computer must extend into the real life of kids, away from the computer, in the classroom. Autonomous. Unhinged. Free to think and move. Alive and kicking.
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