Video games and learning: Individualization, simulation, and complexity

[cross-posted at\nLeaderTalk]


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In my post for LeaderTalk this\nmonth, I'm going to quickly address three ideas related to video games,\nschools, and learning and offer a short wrap-up at the end...

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1. Individualization of learning

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The artificial intelligence engines that drive most video games are able to\ncustomize the learning experience for each individual player. In other words,\nthe game you play is different than the game I play because we have different\nskills and knowledge and because we make different choices during the game. The\ngaming engine adjusts to our differences, providing each of us with a learning\nexperience that is both unique and optimally challenging for us as individuals.\nThat's a pretty powerful argument for considering the use of video games in\neducation. As I said in a\npost long ago:

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Video games are structured so that learners constantly operate at the outer\nedge of their competence. Participants are continually challenged but the\nchallenges are not so difficult that learners believe they are undoable. [Dr.\nJames] Gee refers to this as the regime of competence principle. Lev Vygotsky, a famous\ndevelopmental psychologist, called this concept the zone of proximal\ndevelopment - the area in which students are ready to grow. Video games are\nsimilar to teachers in that they take the role of what Vygotsky called the 'more\nknowledgeable other,' the entity that helps students bridge the gap between\ntheir current ability and new capabilities. In education, we often call this\nscaffolding - the idea that learners can progress to new skill levels\nwith structured, individualized, just-in-time assistance. Video games are very\nadept at scaffolding participants' learning. One of the reasons that video games\nare so compelling / engaging / 'addictive' is that participants are continually\nfaced with new challenges that are neither too easy nor too difficult. This\nmotivates them to move forward because the next step is always in sight and is\nperceived as being achievable.

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We can foresee a day in the hopefully-not-too-distant future when all\nstudents have laptops and teachers, rather than seeing video games as\ncompetitors for their students' attention, will instead have a wide variety of\npowerful educational video games available to them. Teachers then will be able\nto work individually with one group of students while other student groups move\nforward with the help of meaningful, substantive (not simplistic drill-and-kill)\ngaming software. Voila! The age-old dilemma of effective classroom\ndifferentiation just got a huge boost of assistance!

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2. Simulation of authentic experience

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The sight and sound capabilities of today's video games are increasingly\nrealistic. Video game designers are getting better and better at reproducing\nreality through the use of sounds, images, and videos. Corporations,\ngovernments, and the military all are using video gaming engines to produce\nsimulations for employee training. As I said in another\npost from my gaming series a while back:

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As the educational and/or 'serious' games movement grows, we will begin to\nsee complex, realistic, accurate simulations of ancient civilizations (e.g.,\nColonial Williamsburg, the Maya, Great Zimbabwe), historical events (e.g., the\nPelopponesian War, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Long March), scientific and\nmathematical processes (e.g., space exploration, Archimedean physics, Euclidean\ngeometry), and the like. I am looking forward to this day. Right now even the\nmost popular education-oriented games (e.g., Reader Rabbit, JumpStart, Oregon\nTrail, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?) have been notably simplistic\ncompared to commercial virtual worlds such as Second Life, EverQuest, and World\nof Warcraft. I believe that education-oriented simulations will be much better\nat stimulating deeper, richer learning than the textbooks, videos, and learning\ngames of today. It's hard to argue that making authentic decisions in the role\nof a pharaoh or a slave or a farmer, while immersed in the realistic sights,\nsounds, and activities of ancient Egypt, wouldn't be a better, more meaningful,\nand more permanent learning experience than merely reading a few textbook pages,\nseeing a few pictures, answering some "drill-and-kill" multiple choice questions\non the computer, or watching a short video on the subject.

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Reframing video gaming technologies as productive simulations rather\nthan time-wasting games will go a long way toward fostering acceptance\namong educators. Simulations have a long history of use in K-12 classrooms. What\ntoday's gaming technologies allow us to do is to create simulations that enable\nlearners to do the actual work - and make the actual decisions – of whatever\nprofession or society we wish (past, present, or future). This, of course, makes\nthem incredibly authentic learning experiences and is why their use is\nskyrocketing in the professional world.

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3. Intellectual complexity

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Many advocates of video games in education focus on the fact that children\nfind them engaging. They're fun and they take advantage of powerful learning\nprinciples as described above. But one aspect that often gets neglected, I\nbelieve, is the fact that most good video games are pretty complex. As The\nNew Yorker noted in its review of Steven Johnson's book, Everything\nBad Is Good For You:

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Most of the people who denounce video games ... haven't actually played them -\nat least, not recently. Twenty years ago, games like Tetris or Pac-Man were\nsimple exercises in motor coördination and pattern recognition. Today's games\nbelong to another realm. Johnson points out that one of the "walk-throughs" for\n"Grand Theft Auto III" - that is, the informal guides that break down the games\nand help players navigate their complexities - is fifty-three thousand words\nlong, about the length of his book. The contemporary video game involves a fully\nrealized imaginary world, dense with detail and levels of complexity.

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Indeed, video games are not games in the sense of those pastimes - like\nMonopoly or gin rummy or chess - which most of us grew up with. They don't have\na set of unambiguous rules that have to be learned and then followed during the\ncourse of play. This is why many of us find modern video games baffling: we're\nnot used to being in a situation where we have to figure out what to do. We\nthink we only have to learn how to press the buttons faster. But these games\nwithhold critical information from the player. Players have to explore and sort\nthrough hypotheses in order to make sense of the game's environment, which is\nwhy a modern video game can take forty hours to complete. Far from being engines\nof instant gratification, as they are often described, video games are actually,\nJohnson writes, "all about delayed gratification - sometimes so long delayed\nthat you wonder if the gratification is ever going to show."

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At the same time, players are required to manage a dizzying array of\ninformation and options. The game presents the player with a series of puzzles,\nand you can't succeed at the game simply by solving the puzzles one at a time.\nYou have to craft a longer-term strategy, in order to juggle and coordinate\ncompeting interests. In denigrating the video game, Johnson argues, we have\nconfused it with other phenomena in teen-age life, like multitasking -\nsimultaneously e-mailing and listening to music and talking on the telephone and\nsurfing the Internet. Playing a video game is, in fact, an exercise in\n"constructing the proper hierarchy of tasks and moving through the tasks in the\ncorrect sequence," he writes. "It's about finding order and meaning in the\nworld, and making decisions that help create that order."

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If you talk to gamers, they will tell you that one of the key attractions of\ntheir video games is the complexity of their activities. Dr.\nHenry Jenkins at MIT has said that:

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The worst thing a kid can say about homework is that it is too hard. The\nworst thing a kid can say about a video game is that it's too\neasy.

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Wrap-up

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When our students, nearly all of whom have grown up immersed in video game\nexperiences, complain about school not being interesting or engaging,\nthey're not just looking to be entertained (as many teachers claim).\nThey're looking for learning experiences like they have at home that are\nindividualized, authentic, and intellectually complex. Figuring\nout how to make that happen in our K-12 classrooms is the challenge for us as\nleaders as we consider what forms 21st-century learning environments need to\ntake.

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