By Bryan Alexander
Games for Education: 2008
© 2008 Bryan Alexander
earning via computer games: the very idea can seem surreal or out-rageous. Yet for the past five years,a movement has been afoot toexamine how digital games work as pedagogical devices. Starting with thepublication in 2003 of James Paul Gee’slandmark
What Video Games Have to TeachUs about Learning and Literacy,
faculty,technologists, and librarians have beenexploring how we can learn from andalso teach within computer games. Thiscolumn will survey what this movementhas discovered.
The Norton Anthologyof Computer Gaming
Approaching the world of gaming is likestarting to study world literature. A huge,still-burgeoning set of texts brings upquestions of selection and canonicity.In addition, just as each language offersits own linguistic challenges, which canbe only partially overcome by transla-tion, gaming has differing platforms: forlaptops, for mobile phones, for devicesconnected to TVs (Xbox, PlayStation, Wii) or to PCs (
Dance Dance Revolution
),as well as toys notionally connected tothe Web (
), mobile phones, andportable devices (PlayStation Portable). And like languages, games are globally distributed.Genres complicate the survey evenmore. Much as literature offers genres atdifferent levels (novel, short story, poem,play; science fiction, romance), gamingtoo presents a typology of play: platformjumpers, first-person shooters, real-timestrategy (RTS), puzzle games, casualgames (small and playable while doingsomething else, such as work), minigames(games within games), sports games, andalternate reality games (ARGs). One caneven compare audience reaction in bothliterary study and social gaming.
multiplayer online games like
World of Warcraft
have become so widespread asto be lovingly and productively parodiedwith the recent
MultiplayerOnline Game (PMOG). Similarly, how people play games, which people play which games, and the effects of gaming onplayers form a contentious field of study,not unfamiliar to scholars studying thelong centuries of controversy surround-ing various literary texts. The ancientquestion of how a text shapes its readerhas returned in full force with games andtheir players. We can push the literature-gaminganalogy one step further by consideringeconomics. Literary critics have lookedat markets for many years, from study-ing the audience for and marketing oftexts to evaluating the significant body ofMarxist criticism. Trying to understandgaming can involve a similar mindset, andnot just because gaming is big business.Social games often have complex econo-mies, leading to an unsurprising variety of speculation and inflation, currency trading between games, and even the riseof “gold farming,” whereby shops play asa game character to advance their powersand then sell the more powerful being tohurried players.Gaming is, in short, a vast and com-plex world.
Grand Theft Learning Object
Games can be learning objects. Thisassertion summons up two strands ofthought concerning computer-mediatedteaching and learning. First, many ofthe goals for the learning objects move-ment can be transferred to games: digitalobjects from which learners can learnand that can be repeated. Second, we now have two decades of practical experi-ence in using and thinking about digitalobjects in teaching, even if we have notalways applied
as a term todescribe them: CD-ROMs, podcasts, vid-eos, assigned web pages, e-reserves, fileson USB drives, GIF or Java applets. If weemphasize the replayability of learningobjects, the idea of computer games asitems to learn from is not a new thoughtat all.
One basic point bears repeating:some games teach some subjects thatare recognizably intellectual and aca-demic.
Rise of Nations,
forexample, both teach models of social,political, and historical development. Ata different level, many games teach skillsthat have been identified as necessary for learning or for post-higher-educationlife: teamwork, information seeking, self-assessment, communication, numeracy,spatial literacy. Playing
forinstance, requires learning about eco-nomics (business operations), physics,teamwork, long-term planning, andcommunications—for starters. At yet another level, games can tie intoconstructivist pedagogy. First, if players
on their learning in a productiveway—through blog posts, discussionthreads, wiki comments, podcasts—they can be seen as helping to construct theirlearning. Second, if learners
com-puter games, they learn both gaming andcontent. This can involve “modding” apreexisting game, writing a game from