Engagement and Intellectual Development – Insert Coin to Play

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?

9 thoughts on “Engagement and Intellectual Development – Insert Coin to Play

  1. Kathleen says:

    I felt the same way about this topic. I love games (word and board games), and I love education. How did I never combine the two effectively? I think the answer lies in what we consider a game. For example, I use Kahoot in my classroom. It’s a silly interface for quick reviews, but it is basically just a quiz. However, in hindsight, though it is silly, students LOVE it. It engages them in a totally different way than if I were to give an actual practice quiz. The challenge here, as you mentioned, is designing effective games for the content you teach. I would love to attend a conference where essentially that was the entire purpose–to great games for the content you teach. The genius of it is that you can have fun and learn all at the same time. That’s definitely winning.

    • Kristen Felice Noble says:

      Hey Jake, I found your blog to be very insightful. I know gamers but I’ve never asked them to reflect on their experience with games as it relates to learning. I liked your perspective that:

      “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.”

      I agree. I think that well-designed games can have an educational component, however most video/computer games are probably just teaching the gamers how to strategize, problem solve, and work in teams (which are definitely useful skills to have but don’t guarantee that you’ll pass differential equations).

      You also talk about the dichotomy of some games. I am not a gamer, though my wife and I recently started playing Portal on cooperative mode. When we play, I feel like we are learning how to solve the puzzles but I can’t help but to recognize that there is really only one correct answer to each puzzle. So far, the game is lacking multiplicity and I am wanting more creativity and critical thinking.

      I like that you point out that:

      “many users then copy the strategies of experts without considering the thought process behind them or critically evaluating the strategies.“

      This is obviously the easiest method to accomplish a particular goal. As instructors we don’t really want our students to do this but the current education system seems to encourage and reward this type of behavior, i.e., we often want students to take the information we give them, memorize it, and give it back to us in the same format we delivered it to them. This goes back to dichotomy; it’s easier to grade a question with a right or wrong answer.

      I look forward to discussing this topic more on Wednesday!

      • jagarner says:

        Hi Kristen! It’s funny you mentioned Portal. I included it in a draft of this post since it really was pretty ground-breaking and forced gamers (myself included) to think differently. The puzzles really had me thinking on my first play through (particularly in the original where challenges limited time and number of portals created), but YouTube tutorials really eliminated that challenge. Frankly, it’s hard to resist looking at those tutorials.

        It makes me wonder how we can give students problems with known solutions and prevent them from just looking them up. Alternatively, can we do students a service by providing problems with no known solutions?

    • Kristen Felice Noble says:

      Hey Kathleen, thanks for mentioning Kahoot. I don’t really know what Kahoot is but I recently saw that it was the subject of an article in the Journal of Chemical Education. I’m definitely going to go read the article now. I’m glad to hear that your students enjoy using it.

    • jagarner says:

      I’m glad to see Kahoot is spreading! In my work in student affairs, I’ve seen Kahoot for the past 5 years, and it’s nice to see educators using it on the academic side of campus.

      While I think it’s great for now, I wonder how effective Kahoot will remain once it loses its novelty. It’s something that I could see transforming into something like iClickers, about which I’ve heard students complain. I’m not sure if it’s the competition or novelty that differentiates the two.

  2. Arash says:

    hey Jake,

    I appreciate your deep analysis of video games as a learning tool. I was thinking of open-world and open-ending multi-player games (minecraft? ) as examples of multiplicative games. The games that do not rely on pitting all players against each other as their fundamental mode of operation, although competitiveness and conflict may be aspects of the game that excite and encourage people to think, try and learn.

  3. spmurray says:

    I enjoyed reading your post, Jake! I am not a gamer so a few of the discussions this week feel a bit esoteric to me. I like the question you pose, however, asking, “What other methods can we use to create truly engaging learning experiences?”

    In teaching students how to effectively conduct library research, I have an activity called a “Wild Goose Chase” that sends students through library databases online, offering them specific boolean terms and keyword searches to a particular set of results. It has many times turned into a competitive “race” of sorts, to see who can navigate the most quickly through the library’s infrastructure. I then conclude with a fun discussion about what we may be missing if we only rely on google searches as researchers or if we use different / less effective keywords.

    I also construct a jeopardy-style game for my writing students focused on the Academic Phrasebank, a wonderful repository for writing about other sources, developed by British scholars (http://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/). Student teams answer, in front of the class, several rounds of multiple choice questions regarding what would be the best turn of phrase to introduce another author’s thesis, or data, or methodology, etc. This game, too seems to increase student engagement!

    I think the question you posed helped me think of games differently, not making me feel so “out of the loop” in talking about gaming — thank you for that!

  4. Patrick Sullivan says:

    I am also a pretty avid gamer, and I really like the idea of games being a driving force for engaing students in learning. I don’t quite have the pedagogy vocabulary that you bring out here, but I have a million thoughts about the connection between learning, motivation, and gaming. Many games can have randomized elements or environments. This makes the player not be able to do exact copies of what it shows in strategy guides. So it is very easy to see the connection between games that do this and something like a math textbook. The textbook has sections walking through a factoring example (akin to online strategy guide) and sections of factoring problem sets (akin to the player’s game where they need to apply solutions). Random elements in games add complexity and can require a great amount of creativity and critical thinking for a player to solve them, even when a strategy guide is right next to them. Young people that play Minecraft for example, must adapt to be able to make quite complex buildings and systems in their world that is unique to the player.

  5. devinedm says:

    Hi Jake,

    As someone who doesn’t play many games except for one or two on my phone, your perspective is really interesting.

    I really appreciated your insight and reflection on how the types and strategies of your games of choice became more sophisticated as you got older.

    I am curious with all these results whether it is the games that drive these skills or if individuals with an inclination toward creative problem solving are drawn to and excel at these games.

    The other commenters make good points about our conception and consideration of games, and how we can possible reframe our thinking to include more games as engagement activities.

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