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Games People Play

Talking technology and learning

In the following stories, a group of TC faculty—John Black, the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications & Education, Chair of the Department of Human Development and Director of the Institute for Learning Technologies; Charles Kinzer, Professor of Education, Project Director at TC for the Games For Learning Institute and founder of TC’s “Second Life” island; Joey Lee, Assistant Professor of Technology in Education; JoAnne Kleifgen, Professor of Linguistics and Education and Co-Director of the Center for Multiple Languages and Literacies; and Sandra Okita, Assistant Professor of Technology and Education—ponder the answers to these questions and, more broadly, the promise that technology in a variety of forms holds for teaching and learning.

What is it in computer games that so powerfully hooks kids?

Chuck Kinzer: We’re taking a look at existing, popular games that children are playing—we’re going by sales figures for age—and doing some pretty specific testing. What we’re trying to nail down first is why they’re picking these games. There’s got to be something in them that smacks of good design or good motivation, otherwise they would play them a couple times and not come back to them. If we can specify what that is, that becomes a testable, reusable principle. So we’re looking at everything from emotional, social and cognitive responses to whether there even are such things as “learning games,” to differences across gender and age in how people react to games. We now have an eye-tracking camera so we can see what people are focusing on when they look at screens, including handheld devices. We’re interested in what kinds of game-play elements and game-design elements might influence people most, both in choices they make about which games to play and decisions they make while playing, and how those could support teaching and learning.

How do games promote learning?

Chuck Kinzer: There’s been quite a bit of work done on how people coalesce into groups and solve common problems within multi-player games. How you have to act within groups in guild formation and leadership strategies. It does appear there’s some learning going on there—Jim Gee [Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University] talks a lot about that in his books. Edward Castranova [Professor of Telecommunications at Indiana University] has a book on the economics of games. The work that’s not been done is direct transference into school subjects. For example, if you’re using some sort of a lever device to throw a rock at a castle to knock it down, how much are you learning about physics principles and can you solve physics problems that are more traditional? So we’re also taking a close look at how you can design games to meet certain kinds of learning goals. For example, if team-building is your goal, you build a game in which working as part of a team is important and that’s the only way you can solve the game.

John Black: “Civilization” is a video game that allows players to change history and see what would happen as a result. We—Jessica Hammer, a TC doctoral student, and I—decided to see if playing the game helps people learn history in the traditional way. We recruited “Civilization” experts off the Internet and compared them to people who were experts in the video game “Sim City.” What we found was that the “Civilization” players weren’t better at history than the “Sim City” players, but if we sent members of both groups off to read a college history textbook chapter on a subject related to what they’d focused on in the game, the “Civilization” players learned much more than the “Sim City” experts did. So the “Civilization” game gave them a body of experiences that they could then use to make more of this more traditional way of learning. So I actually recommend to teachers that they have their kids play “Civilization” the summer before they take World History. [It takes about 40 hours of playing “Civilization” to become an expert, Black says.]

JoAnne Kleifgen: We are trying to use new media to draw Latino adolescents into learning how to write academic essays for social studies and eventually science. We have developed a Web-based writing space that is populated with texts and images. We start with what Chuck calls an “anchor”—something that’s very interesting and familiar to them, like a Spanish language rap video about immigrants—and then we build on it. We get them to talk about immigrant rights using the video as an example. They explore economic, political and social issues the video raises. And they begin to connect these to civil rights. Then we talk about geography—if the video is shot in Mexico, where is that in relation to the kids’ school? During the discussions, we teach them how to take notes and we give them access to a Web site with writing tools, including dictionaries, to help them write in English and Spanish. Also on the Web site are images relating to the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.: the dogs attacking, people protesting, water fountains for ‘colored’ or ‘white’—because images are what gets them going. Eventually, the students start looking at text as well. In one of the lessons, they actually read the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

It’s a very Deweyan idea: start with where the child is. So we try to understand the community we’re working with, including parents. Because there’s a whole trove of community skills that kids bring into the classroom. And these are going to be the same kids who do video gaming. Who are texting. If they’re texting, they’re literate, right?

And so our goal is to take these multiple modes of communication, which are sources of learning, and use them as efficaciously as we can to get children to succeed academically. We need to understand these new media forms and work with them. They’ve changed the life of learning and education as radically as the printing press, the typewriter and the word processor. They’ve made it possible for learning to be broader, less located in places, wireless. It’s time we took advantage of it for teaching, too.

What is the role of imagination in learning through games and other forms of technology?

John Black: The main theoretical framework I apply is what’s called grounded cognition. It’s a new area, and the idea is that if you have a full perceptual experience with a topic when you’re first experiencing it, and if you learn to imagine that experience as you’re learning more, then you understand both the experience and the topic better. So we’re using technology as a way of providing that perceptual grounding and embodiment for the knowledge. We have kids programming video games using a freely available programming language, and they learn to embody science and math and some literacy in games. And we think by doing that they understand those subjects better. Certainly with any of these subjects, in order to imagine something, you have to have something to build the imagination from. So if you have some relevant experiences, you can then put those together in different ways and extend them in your own imagination. Having experiences that relate what you’re learning can make a big difference.

Technology exists that provides these kinds of experiences. The virtual world “Second Life” has so-called “islands” in it that are versions of the worlds described in some classic novels, such as Of Mice and Men. Students studying that novel could explore those worlds, and that should help them. To understand Of Mice and Men, it’s important to understand the world in which the novel takes place. The key thing here is that the students have to learn how to do this in their own heads, too. In addition to having kids program video games, I also have them program robots as another way to provide perceptual grounding and embodiment to increase learning, understanding and motivation.

What about the notion of identity in games, and how that relates to imagination and experience?

Chuck Kinzer: There’s been quite a bit of research done on the extent to which people identify with their game characters. In “Second Life,” for example, when people’s avatars—which they themselves can construct—get pushed or bumped or put upon by other game characters, people have been known to cry. Now the question theoretically becomes, is it first-person or not? If your avatar dies, you don’t die. You’re still an observer of the screen, right? Ultimately, you turn the computer off and you go away. But when you ask game players, they’ll often say, ‘It’s happening to me.’ So there’s this kind of divide. It’s almost like this middle world between first-person and third-person. You’re constrained by the consequences of your choices. And I think that can provide students real insights and therefore provides us some real opportunities.

Joey Lee: I designed games that focused on myths and misconceptions that exist related to Asian American culture. The games were intended to get students to test their perceptions and assumptions. One game was called “Flying Asian Stereotypes.” It was a very simple game where a person would walk around a small world and decide whether or not they would let stereotypes impact them. If they let a certain stereotype touch them—minority or nerd or smart—that would completely change the way their character would appear and the way the other characters would interact with it. And so the player would learn the unintended consequences of being labeled even seemingly positive stereotypes like being smart. Designed experiences within video games and virtual environments can be really powerful in getting people to change their perceptions, learn about themselves and other cultures, and shift their identities in useful ways. There’s a lot of potential there in terms of getting students to think about how they can impact the world in positive ways.

Published Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010