Video Games and Learning: A “Game-Changer”

As part of EPIC Teaching Academy (a game-based PD opportunity in my school system), I just watched this short video from James Paul Gee. I could go into his credentials for days, but just Google him. I did; I was impressed. My assignment was to write a brief reflection… a brief reflection doesn’t suffice the power of the words in this short video.  Alas, a blog post about this video, which was truly a “game-changer” for me.

A video game is only a set of problems.  It doesn’t matter what the problems are. You must solve the set of problems in order to win.”  Thinking back to my childhood, Super Mario Brothers was the first video game I remember playing.  If it froze, or went to the snow screen, I’d just blow in the cartridge, reinsert the game, and voila!  While playing the game, my mission was to rescue the princess.  I learned quickly which blocks to hit when I jumped and which tunnels had those obnoxious fire-breathing plants coming out of them.  I learned where to jump, and where the vines to climb for extra points were hidden.  I solved the set of problems before me; even though I was frustrated at times and had to walk away and regroup, I’d always return to try again.  Shouldn’t we want our schools to be like that?  I want my students to be frustrated; I want things to get hard for them.  More importantly, I want them so engaged that they want to come back and try again.

“It has to be successful in teaching people to play it because it will go broke if it doesn’t…We have evolved an almost perfect way to teach these incredibly complex games.”  If we, as educators, are not successful in teaching our students to “play school”, what happens to their future?  What about those students who are good at “playing school”, but really haven’t learned anything along the way, except how to take a test?  I have seen those tests; I have taken those tests.  Even without understanding what I was reading, I could eliminate two answer choices.  Does that mean I knew the material?  No, it means I’m a good test-taker.  On the flip side, what about those “bad test-takers”?  Are they really struggling with the content, or are they struggling with the test?

And to the assessment discussion…

“Assessment and testing is what drives our current school system; if you’re not happy with how schools teach today, they teach that way because of the tests we have.”  If we change the test, we change the system.  I actually believe that testing can be a good thing.  In the book How We Learn by Benedict Carey, Carey underlines how testing is one of the best ways of learning, if it is done correctly.  Multiple formative assessments performed at various intervals with immediate feedback is the key, not a high-stakes summative multiple-choice test.

“Let’s say a kid plays Halo on hard… for 30-40 hours and he finishes Halo.  Would you be tempted to give him a Halo test? No, not at all.  You’d say the game already tested him.”  You actually trust the design and learning of Halo more than the design and learning of the algebra class.  Think about these video games and apply the concept of formative assessment to each level.  Did a lightbulb just go off in your head?  It should have.  In video games, you gain a small bit of knowledge and begin to apply it.  Chances are, gaining the knowledge comes through failure.  I gained knowledge about the fire-breathing plants in the tunnels in Super Mario Brothers by getting hit by one of the fire balls and dying.  I avoided them from that point forward (until I learned to kill them with my own fire… and kill them I did.).  I had immediate feedback – I either died, avoided the plant, or killed the plant.  I continually used that knowledge throughout the rest of the game.  When I first started playing World of Warcraft, I wanted someone to tell me how to play.  I was told, “let the game teach you”.  I didn’t understand that, until it started teaching me; I learned through small formative assessments along the way.  I used what Gee describes as “situated and embodied learning “.  I solved problems with what I knew about that quest.

“Schools in America, for the first time in history, have genuine competition.  That’s because companies large and small are selling 24-7 learning, customized to you, outside of school.”  Our competition is no longer other countries’ educational systems, but the two within our own country.  We have “skill and drill schools” where basic numeric facts and literacy are being taught, and we have “21st century schools [where] kids are producing their own knowledge.”  I’m not saying that video games is the only way to teach; I’m not planning to change my entire media center into a room for gaming.  I am saying however, that video games have created a perfect venue for educating students.  Critical thinking and problem solving are embedded in games.  As educators, why would we NOT use them?

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