I am a gamer. I am an educator. Though I consider myself a learner in all things I do, I never took time to consider the intersection of those two identities. In fact, I intentionally made the decision to keep the two separate. As a child, I spent plenty of time in front of the latest Nintendo console, but when I went to college, I opted not to bring a console with me. I don’t regret that decision. As a first-year student, I saw a hall mate move off campus, back to his parents’ home since League of Legends became such a distraction that his academic performance suffered. As a professional in residence life, I still see students struggle with time management, not allocating sufficient time to study due to multiple late night rounds of Fortnite.
Hence, it felt a bit odd to read and reflect on the educational value of gaming. However, the software that taught math and reading skills (the Jumpstart K-5 series), the software games that provided cognitive challenges (the Pajama Sams and Freddie Fishes), and even the 3-D platform games of the Nintendo 64 (Banjo-Kazooie, Super Mario 64) all challenged me to think and explore as a kid. Eventually, I delved more into strategy RPG games (Pokémon and Fire Emblem), but even with this change, as I grew up, games started to feel less educational, and I doubted that games could ever be tools of learning, offering a mindless distraction instead of an intellectual challenge.
My first thought about what might have caused this shift away from learning was simple: strategy guides. At first these were books my parents would purchase that essentially gave a written description of how to beat a game to 100% completion. More recently, they come from a simple google search. However, the strategy guide itself was not the problem. The real reason these games fail to challenge me intellectually is that they are linear; they essentially have one set of steps that is followed to win.
The story from “Teaching in a Galaxy Far, Far Away” in Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s A New Culture of Learning Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change challenged me to consider learning from games differently. The game mentioned provided a truly interactive experience where students collaborated and exchanged ideas to learn more than they otherwise would have from a lecture. With results like that, it becomes difficult to argue that games have no educational purpose.
After considering, I see video games as a solid means of engagement, a medium that entices its participants to continue playing. While engagement is a factor in effective learning, it does not guarantee learning. A game can engage in the way that Thomas and Brown described, but it can also keep a student up all night and away from learning. I think what determines whether a game supports learning is whether or not the challenge of that game is consistent with (or just slightly above) the player’s level of intellectual development. Thinking back on my own experience as a gamer, I consider William Perry Jr.’s 1968 theory of intellectual and ethical development, which characterizes the meaning-making process into the developmental categories of dualism, multiplicity, and relativism.
Dualism is rooted in a way of thinking in dichotomies. There is right answer and a wrong answer. The games that challenged me as a child posed structured problems that were solved by dualistic thinking. They were linear with essentially one correct way to win, and the strategy guide could provide the single correct answer. As a kid in the stage of dualism, these games provided sufficient challenge that I felt I was learning.
Moving forward from dualism, there is multiplicity and relativism, moving from that state of dichotomies to seeing the value in different views and solutions (multiplicity) to distinguishing some solutions are better than others depending on the context (relativism). From Thomas and Brown’s example, it became clear, that more open-world, collaborative, and competitive games could actually spawn this type of thinking. Players do not face structured problems with one answer but can continually work to collaborate and generate new solutions depending on what they presently face in the game.
I also think that some observations from how some players approach video games parallel issues that students face in learning. Even when a game is less structured with no set solution, it can be approached dualistically. I think of something like Pokémon since it’s familiar to me, but I believe it can apply elsewhere. There are several online communities – Smogon and Serebii are two examples – centering around the video games series where experts discuss strategies that involve extremely high level thinking. That conversation is an impressive example of collaborative learning, but many users then copy the strategies of experts without considering the thought process behind them or critically evaluating the strategies. On one hand, it’s incredible that so much knowledge is available to the average player, but it’s unfortunate that players lose out on the experience of coming up with their own strategy and instead engage in the dualistic practice of subscribing to one expert’s opinion.
This becomes more problematic when it’s not about Pokémon and the Smogon online community, but instead about science and Chegg. It seems great that we can provide students with ill-structured problems and that they have an online community where they can discuss solutions in a way that encourages collaborative solutions and relativism in their thinking. However, if this “conversation” simply involves experts contributing solutions, students aren’t actually learning.
Hence, considering video games a means of learning has provided me a few points to ponder:
Though video games are one medium that can bring about engagement, they are not always the best solution. What other methods can we use to create truly engaging learning experiences?
A game is only valuable if it challenges players to think at or beyond their current stage of intellectual development. It’s an important consideration in any educational method.
While the exchange of information and ideas is essential for collaborative learning (about Pokémon or academic subjects), it can result in experts teaching solutions that reinforce a tendency to subscribe to dualistic thinking. How can we ensure that students begin thinking in stages of multiplicity and relativism?