Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of Buckingham and Scanlon’s Education, entertainment, and learning in the home

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Jan 3, 2007

Reviewed by Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen

Author: Buckingham, David & Scanlon, Margaret
Title: Education, entertainment, and learning in the home. Open University Press, 2002
ISBN: 0-335-21007-4
Price: $29.95
Pages: 202

0335210074

This book is not all that central to game-research as it takes a broader approach to new ways of learning as parents in the private spheres get more involved in securing the educational goals of their children. In this sense, games is an important area, which is also discussed in the book. The book succeeds in providing a more detailed view on the dynamics, structures, and marketing of edutainment.

The approach is quite broad but is always relevant to the broader objective, namely to understand learning in the home. Edutainment is analysed from three different perspectives (market, text, and audience), which is commendable as it combines different important methods to gather a complete picture of the phenomenon. In game-research the combination of different methodologies is indeed a problem as some reject the importance of text analysis while other swear by it. In this book, the advantages of different methods are made clear, showing the way for game-research.

Broadly the book is split into three parts: The first part deals with the commercial and political underpinnings of learning in the home, and the broader context. This part is primarily aimed at describing the UK market and to a lesser degree other countries. The educational market is seen as unstable and undergoing changes in relation to distribution, publishing, and products. Furthermore, the companies in the market are becoming bigger and multinational. As the companies have become stronger, the competition has increased; the cautiousness and conservatism in the products developed and marketed have become marked. Although the primary aim would seem to be educational, this has clearly become secondary to commercial interests. It is also a market where the term ‘educational’ is covering a wider area, and where the connection with entertainment is receiving a lot of interest. The publishers and distributors have to tread a fine balance between children and parents’ interest and preferences.

The second part analyses different products and media forms to identify the properties of the pedagogy within edutainment. The focus is how the pedagogies are being shaped in the products to target both children and parents through a combination of educational content and entertainment. From the authors’ analysis it becomes clear that the claim for better educational products through the computer by way of especially interactivity is flawed. The product tends to be superficially interactive, and educational shallow, and is perceived as such by both children and parents. This points to the decline in educational software packages as children and parents have realised the limited value of these products the hard way.

The last part examines parents’ and children’s perception of learning in the home. Furthermore, they examine children’s concrete experience with certain relevant educational products. The chapter points to the broader changes in the roles undertaken by school and parents. The parent is increasingly being addressed as a partner or even co-teacher with responsibility for homework, tutoring, extra-curricular material, getting to next level in educational system, and the preparation for the future job market. The book’s conclusion can be read as a very good summary of the arguments in the three parts.

The most relevant chapter in relation to game research is ‘Chapter 7: Going Interactive’, where different edutainment titles are analysed and the bearing interactivity has on the learning experience is discussed. Furthermore, different learning forms are identified in edutainment titles. The authors try to identify the underlying pedagogies in the gamea by looking at the degree of control and feedback in the games. They stress that different educational objectives lend themselves to different mixes of control and feedback but often the more open-ended games are the most popular from an educational perspective. Although the educational content is less overtly present the intrinsic motivation related to these games seems to make up for it. According to the authors the edutainment titles are of quite implicit nature as there is no explicit feedback on why certain things happen or what rules is beneath. They take the discussion further by stressing the importance of teachers and parents role as qualifying and discussing the game experience. This is also formed as a critique of current edutainment titles, which are not capable of scaffolding learning and guiding the learner. However, they do not look to earlier research on games and learning, where these problems have been discussed. The earlier research into games and learning, for example Lederman, stresses that debriefing and discussion needs to follow almost any game used for educational purposes. One question that remains is whether computer games hold a potential for guiding that traditional games are not capable of for example through help text, difficulty level or probing questions based on your actions. These features would be almost impossible to implement in traditional games but in computer games it seem fairly obvious that at least in theory this should be possible, however this would probably have to be in more linear titles, where you can anticipate the player’s actions, and take care of it. In more emergent game titles this would be a huge task to undertake due to the open-ended nature of these games. It seems clear that authors are not talking from a game research position, and the references are not from game research, and I believe some interesting titles are missing for example Jane Healy’s (1998) book ‘Failure to Connect’ had quite an impact in the United States, and had some of the same points although her work is less academic founded.

On a more formal level the book is well written, well argued, and an original approach to a highly relevant subject. The writers have a solid background within the areas and draw on new empirical data not earlier presented in its full form. The book may seem a little long to pick up the really interesting discussions if you are not that interested in the broader context of the products, which the first part covers.

The primary relevance of the book is its broader approach to the discussion of edutainment, which has gone on for many years and as such the book is well recommended. The attitude towards games as edutainment has over the years been marked by criticism and disappointment about the poor quality of many of the titles, which this book explores in detail qualifying earlier anecdotal evidence. The learning principles and structure of the titles have not lived up to current standards, and have been marked by a tendency to sugar-coat the content and set it apart from learning in schools - as if this is automatically something better. The discussion reminds me of John Dewey’s defence of the ‘experimental schools’, he stress that we should be most alert not to simply criticise the existing school, without having a better alternative. Similarly, we should be cautious to offer new interactive educational software of games, when they cause more problems than they solve.

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