Understanding Video Games text-book
The Game on conference and the current state of research into learning

Date posted: May 14, 2006
Updated: Oct 24, 2006

By Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen

The Game on conference in Edinburgh hosted by Learning and teaching in Scotland stressed the growing trend of using computer games for learning, and even more the appreciation of research into the field. Although this perspective on games is far from new, it has re-emerged in the last two years as a viable road for bringing computer games beyond a reductionism – that of seeing computer games as a narrow medium with room for little more than simple, and violent games.

The perspective on learning in games is only one of these trends, where the adoption of computer games to mainstream culture, and the framing of computer games as art are examples of other important trends. What sets the trend of learning in games apart from the other trends is the potential market value and influence on public perception of games if it really succeeds. Arriving at a formula for learning games that uses the dynamics of computer games could really change things. This formula should not settle for facilitating an existing relevant curriculum, and learning in a broader sense, within the current framework. Instead it should be more immersive, effective, social and contextualized in the learners everyday life.

Currently the UK government is pushing the use of information technology in the educational system and an institution like Becta clearly demonstrates the commitment. The increased interest by Becta has been building since 2001 and towards the end of 2002 they have launched a new conference, although only in an online setting. In the US, MIT has increased their research efforts into learning potential of games backed by Microsoft with Henry Jenkins and Kurt Squire as the main promoters. This is also in line with Microsoft’s strategic alliance announced in 2001, where Lego will develop content with a learning perspective, specifically computer games.

What is interesting is that the awareness of learning in games has not picked up with the gaming community as such, even though this might be an opportunity for the community to demonstrate alternative uses of games. At the leading web sites for game development like Gamasutra the topic of learning games is one of the least discussed. There seems to be a lack of interest outside the academic community. At IGDA the Special Interest Group for learning is also waiting to really get going. One of the places that discussions and exchange of knowledge is starting to take off is in the mailing list gamesandeducation@ngfl.gov.uk that I encourage everyone to make use of.

Many years of mismanagement of the area and futile attempts for making valuable learning games have made their marks. The magic wand of ‘edutainment’ has been swung too many times with dubious effects – most often a waste of time with very limited learning potential. From the conference in Edinburgh, it is clear that there is still a good way to go before we will see the necessary facilitating elements in place:

1. A fitting curriculum
2. The necessary investments
3. A less localised school curriculum
4. A bigger market
5. A better general understanding of digital media in school
6. A better understanding of difference kinds of games
7. The necessary skills of teacher, administration and parents to judge a game, and how to use it with relevance in school.
8. Increased understanding of basic computer games dynamics like gameplay
9. Specific research into computer games and learning, going beyond a simple approach of luring children to learning through games, or instructional learning games.

[* These points are inspired by the talks at Edinburgh Game On Conference, and my research. I am very interested in expanding this list.]

It was rather shocking to hear that games were used simply to lure children with social behavioural problems into UK schools (in one specific ‘experiment’) – like a reward, and that this was considered a rather good use for computer games. If the ambitions do not take us further than this, we should not even try. In this instance at least, the goal should be to use games as a mediator for communications and social activities between these children with social behavioural problems.

Still there were interesting talks at the conference especially the ones given by Kurt Squire from MIT on the Games-To-Teach project, and how they are opening up a new area of research. Now they will also try to look into humanities, and these topics can be facilitated through computer games. The research paper presented by Angela McFarlane from Bristol University was also fairly interesting. Mainly she described the current status in the UK educational systems in relation to experience with games, and the potential of games. Her conclusions wer not that encouraging, mainly attributing computer games with the power to engage children in social communities supporting learning. Although this perspective is certainly interesting we need to take it one step further, and in my opinion we should insist that games do have something more to offer. It is too early to give up. A first barrier that Angela McFarlane also mentioned was the tight focus on curriculum, and test scores. A game is more general and has a hard time fitting into these boxes.
But maybe this perspective is dangerous. Computer games should not be fitted into the existing school system but should be an opportunity to challenge the existing somewhat rigid and traditional school system. It would after all be a shame if we destroy the very thing in games, which we were first looking for like the intrinsic motivated explorative attitude towards an open game universe.

More information on the Game On conference in Edinburgh can be found here.

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