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16. Finding Epic Meaning

The power of games to capture the imagination was once reserved for recess–a playful escape from the grind of a day neatly segmented into subjects, one after the next, separated with surgical precision by mechanical sound of the bell. Little crossover occurred between them. Algebra was distinct from art. Music and science would not have overlapped.

Today, in an increasingly fluid hybrid environment, with greater focus on the design of layered experiences, subjects seep into one another. While students are learning to master the basics and core subjects, they must also learn skills relevant to the 21st century workforce such as critical thinking, collaborative participation in problems solving and designing better systems during a period of economic and cultural chaos. Creativity and imagination are required for this challenge.

Games, with their power to create and sharpen tangible skills, are increasingly considered an integral aspect of modern education. While educators look to the game industry for pointers, game designer and producer Allen Murray who worked on HALO and now works for PopCap, said that the game industry isn’t yet the place to find guidance, because most games are still created for the sake of entertainment, largely reliant on devices such as first-person shooters that aren’t desirable in a learning environment.

“Instead of looking to the game industry to shape education,” Murray says, “education should look at the way other industries use game mechanics to create desired outcomes. Stores, for example, are carefully designed to move impulse items at the front while keeping milk and eggs in the back so customers have to pass other tempting merchandise on the way to pick up staples.”

The the power of games is becoming pervasive partly, as game designer and author Jane McGonigal notes, because games are satisfying in ways that the real world often isn’t, offering tangible rewards and hands-on work so participants know clearly what the challenges are and how they can be overcome. In real life, it isn’t always so clear when a player has leveled up, but in games such as Spore (used to teach concepts such as evolutionary biology), a player can immediate sense when she has improved, thus gaining confidence and other positive effects that carry over into the physical world.

On May 27, 2010, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said that games represent “a new way.”

“…Youngsters in middle school level — sixth, seventh, eighth grade — spend, on the average, 40 hours a week in front of a screen, whether it’s TV or video. Maybe more, but that’s a lot. It’s more than they spend in school, it’s more than they spend with parents. It’s a huge amount of time. Now, if we can capture just part of that time, a little bit of it, to get them in front of a computer screen to play these games, they’re going to learn. And they don’t even know they’re learning. I mean, they’re fun. The games are great….They’re fabulous…And the students go up 20 percent in their knowledge by playing those games. It’s just incredible.”

The movement has been underway for years. At the Center for Advanced Technologies in Schools (CATS), games have been developed and tested for two years so far as part of a five-year grant from the United States Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences. Over 2,000 middle and high school students have tested the games. Entire schools, in fact, are now dedicated to games for learning.

McGonigal believes that the three billion hours per week people currently spend playing games isn’t enough and wants to see a collective 21 billion hours played so the game play can translate into solving real-world problems. The statistics she uses to illuminate the volume of game play underscore how seriously people take games. 5.93 million collective years have been spent playing World of Warcraft, she notes, and kids spend as much time gaming as they do in school.

Games, McGonigal says, create:

  1. Urgent optimism: The belief that an epic win is possible
  2. Tight social fabric: People like people better after playing a game together.
  3. Blissful productivity: Gamers are incredibly happy working hard in a game
  4. Epic Meaning: The idea that one is doing something meaningful for society.

Sarah Smith-Robbins, director of emerging technologies at the Indiana University at Bloomington, said the same at the 2010 Educause conference in Anaheim when she expressed the value of gaming as a teaching tool.

“Games are absolutely the best way to learn,” she said. “They are superior to any other instructional model.”

Games, Smith-Robbins said, can accomplish an array of teaching goals that more traditional pedagogy says it wants to achieve, but often does not.

“Fundamentally, school is already a game,” she said. “It’s just a really bad one. The rules are not clear. The system works better for some people than for others. Not everybody has the same resources at the beginning of the game. We don’t start on a level playing field or with a shared goal.”

In “Learning by Playing: Videogames in the Classroom,” Sara Corbett reported for The New York Times on new educational approaches to video games in the classroom. The article cites the work of James Paul Gee at the University of Arizona, who highlights the fact that students ultimately need to understand creative problem solving and creativity.

“What I advocate is not learning with games,” Gee said, “but problem-based learning in which learners practice skills as they solve problems. Today our schools focus on facts and information and not problem solving. Thus, many of our students cannot actually solve problems even when they can pass tests on facts and information.”

Games, Gee said, are one good way to accomplish this, because a video game is problem solving with lots of practice, feedback, and assessment. Nevertheless, he feels this style of learning can and should be done in many different ways.

“We need to build settings in which kids learn lots of content,” he continued, “but through using that content as tools for problem solving and as a body of knowledge to which they can contribute. Such learning should also stress learning to collaborate, learning to pool knowledge with others, learning to innovate and preparation for future learning and for being a expert life-long learner.”

Katie Salen is the Executive Director of Design of Quest to Learn, a newly-developed public school in New York City based on a collaborative systems thinking approach, with game design being the central organizing focus.

The school uses digital media and game design as the primary means for accomplishing educational goals, with video games and other technologies at the center of all classes and learning experiences. Games are played, but game design itself is used as a teaching tool as well.

This is critical, because students who are only passive consumers of technology and related products and lifestyles will not gain the skills necessary to thrive in a competitive, creative environment of designers, coders and creators in the future.

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