On digital games

In late 2006 I met up with Euan Semple over a few hot beverages at the hotel I was staying in for my London visit to Information Online. As part of our discussion, Euan recommended the book, The kids are alright, by John Beck and Mitchell Wade (actually somewhat dated now). I bought the book in Charing Cross Road and it stood on my bookshelf at home in Sydney for some time before I got around to reading it late last year.

But before I read that book, my interest in online games was stimulated by a couple of items I haphazardly found on the web and downloaded for interest. One was a 2006 article on games and learning, and the second was a podcast by Richard van Eck of the University of North Dakota (USA) on the thinking behind the effectiveness of games in teaching and learning (I listened to the podcast again this evening and it is still very relevant).

Since then, I have read quite a few more articles on the topic and I am gradually changing my previously sceptical viewpoint about digital games. Now this is quite a revelation to me since I have always had the opinion that play and games are vital for learning. When I was at primary school and in the early years of high school, I made games myself with cardboard, cards, tokens, and spin-wheels. I created characters, currencies, and problems that were developed for the board games and I did all of this for fun. Moreover, my research to make the game and the rules was also fun!

But somehow, as an adult, I have clung on to the notion that board games are good and digital games are bad (and this is despite the fact that I spent considerable time playing Galaxians during my early university years, and becoming quite proficient I might add). I have held the view that board games are “more than just fun” but digital games are just leisure, not something to take seriously.

But I am now reviewing my attitudes more and more about digital games and learning. I have become much more interested in the role of digital games within the educational domain. To a lesser extent, I am interested in understanding and using digital gaming as another form of entertainment. I’d say my lack of spare time prohibits my full exploration of digital games for fun but the prevalence and variety of such games is astounding.

Having said all this, I have some doubts as to the effectiveness of online training systems. I have completed a few workplace-based online training sessions (funnily enough, most often dealing with compliance issues) but always felt that the learning session was more interested in checking off tick-boxes rather than any meaningful learning. Essentially, the online training sessions relied on the ability to memorise a few bits of information, answer the multiple choice questions, and move on. But did I really learn anything??

When it comes to digital games I am more positive given their emphasis on problem-solving in particular. It was therefore interesting to read today that gaming can indeed be a positive learning and thinking medium, using alternate reality games (ARGs) such as World without oil. Not only does the game look at dealing with real world problems like global oil deficits, but the nature of the game is indeed very collaborative.

The article cites Andrea Phillips, an ARG writer and producer, who says that the key appeal of these games is in the art of crafting a collaborative narrative. “Collaboration in storytelling is an old tradition, even older than print,” she says. “So you could say we’re working to reclaim something we lost hundreds of years ago when we first started recording narratives with pen and paper, and later with film.”

[And interestingly, there’s a conference next week on narrative and interactive learning to be held in Edinburgh, Scotland. Could be worth a look to anyone living in the British Isles. I have also been alerted to the 2nd European Conference on Games-Based Learning to be held in Barcelona, Spain, in October].

Digital games as a learning media are certainly gaining some traction. As the book, “The kids are alright” argued, our doubts and fears about the online digital space in which these games are conducted need to be re-examined in the light of the positive digital gaming taking place around the world. And like most things, the good and the bad are determined by the context, not the technology.

If we can use digital games for educational learning, and to generate new ideas by examining real world problems in a collaborative environment, then we should be supportive, shouldn’t we?

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