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Creativity, Video Games, and Learning: An Epic Win?

Melanie Borrego
Western Oregon University

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Sir Ken Robinson has become famous for his insistence that our educational systems are
dysfunctional because they are not encouraging creativity. Instead, they are taking children who
are very creative (and believe themselves to be so) and drumming the creativity out of them.
Education, he argues, has become like Death Valley, capable of incredible growth and beauty,
but at present, nothing but a scorched wasteland. There are three principles, he says, that can help
us turn the desert into a fertile field. The first is that we need to understand students are
intellectually diverse, and give them a chance to work on and be celebrated for their strengths
rather than punish them for their weaknesses. Next, he argues that sparking the curiosity of a
child will motivate him or her to learn independently with less assistance (or interference)
required from adults. Finally, he insists that human beings are inherently creative. If given work
that piques their interest and challenges their creativity and problem solving skills, children will
learn (Robinson, April 2013).
Robinsons theories about creativity and the students ability to learn has been borne out
in the research of Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University and
the author of The Hole in the Wall project. This project was born out of a desire to track why
student performance dropped in ways that correlated with what appeared to be a straight line
leading away from city centers. There are, and always will be, places in the world where good
teachers either dont want to go or are unable to go, and we concluded that the quality of
education in these areas suffers as a result (Mitra, 2012, p. 18). How, Mitra pondered, could
these students receive an equitable education without teachers? With all the resources available
through the internet and a little help, could they teach themselves?
In 1999, Mitra had a friend embed a desktop computer in the wall near their offices in
Kalkaji, New Delhi. It was placed at a childs height in a location clearly visible from the street.
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There were no instructions, just the computer with a web connection and a few programs.
Almost immediately, children began to emerge from the nearby slum, curious about this screen
in the wall. Within a few hours, they had taught themselves to surf the Web. Within six months,
the children of the neighborhood had learned all the mouse operations, could open and close
programs, and were going online to download games, music, and videosThey told us they had
taught themselves (Mitra, 2012, pp. 22-24). Mitra continued his work, placing more and more
computers in areas traditionally underserved educationally, refining the project (placing wooden
awnings over the computers so it would be very difficult for adults to use them, making sure the
walls were in highly visible public places so they could limit misuse, and designing tests to
assess the childrens information literacy. In the end, he devised an educational approach called
Minimally Invasive Education, (MIE) where children without access to quality education can
still learn on their own and from one another.
Once he had published his work, educators began to apply MIE in different ways. Mitra
began to study these new approaches, and then developed an in-class modelthe Self-Organized
Learning Environment (SOLE). Much as the children in the slums of India had taught one
another computer literacy, students could begin with a big question posed by a teacher and
then work with each other to track down the answers (Mitra, 2012). The SOLE is an engaging
idea, one that echoes educational theorists as different as Maria Montessori, John Holt, and Peter
Elbow. They take advantage of students natural curiosity and their desire to learn, show off that
learning, and fit it into something engaginga kind of creative game structure for learning. After
all, what is a SOLE if not a multiplayer quest for knowledge?
Using elements of the SOLE, would it be possible to combine a more expert use of
technology to teach students not only internet literacy, but to use the internet to promote
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academic fluency? What might be the result if SOLEs were combined with video game play and
design? Linda Jackson, professor of psychology at Michigan State University and lead researcher
for the Children and Technology Project at Michigan State University conducted a study of 491
twelve year-olds and concluded that those who played video games were more creative than
those who did not. Students were surveyed about their video-game playing habits, and then took
the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking-Figural. The results were conclusive: Regardless of
gender, race, or type of game played by the students, the study found a relation between video
game playing and greater creativity (Jackson, et al., 2012, p. 370).
Students are already spending a great deal of their leisure time playing video games. If
educators can tap into that existing emotional investment, they may have a much easier time
getting students to engage in their own learning. Critics are concerned that creativity is not
measurable, that students and their instructors will be unable to demonstrate a mastery of skills if
the school day is focused on having fun. Robinsons definition of creativity, then, is vital to
understanding why engagement in creative endeavors can and does support rigorous intellectual

Critics think of children running around wild and knocking down the furniture rather
than getting on with serious work. Being creative does usually involve playing with
ideas and having fun; enjoyment and imagination. But creativity is also about working
in a highly focused way on ideas and projects, crafting them into their best forms and
making critical judgments along the way about which works best and why. In every
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discipline, creativity also draws on skill, knowledge, and control. (Robinson, 2011, p. 5)

Robinson does, of course, have detractors, among them classroom instructors at all levels who
want details on how to apply his theories. While research does support the notion that humans
are born with a need for creative play (Ginsberg, 2007), many educators seem to associate
creativity with the kind of chaos that impedes learning, when it may in fact, as Robinson
proposes, establish the kind of energetic environment that promotes it. Mitra is demonstrating
success with SOLEs. Researchers like Jackson and her team at Michigan State (a team that
included Yong Zhao), have shown that another way to engage students in rigorous academic
work is revealed in the connection between creativity and the opportunity video games offer
students to express it.
If we are, as Robinson argues, wired for creativity, why not tap into that potential? Why
not work with our nature instead of against it? Play is an essential part of creativity, and the
games students are playing today are online, available not only on desktop computers, but
increasingly more often on laptops, tablets, and phones. Video gaming has become ubiquitous; it
is a language most children speak and a challenge they are eager to attack.
As a part of a larger reformation of the entire system of schooling in this country,
reformers might take what lessons are available from innovative experiments like the Quest for
Learning school in New York City, which opened in 2010. As in most New York City
neighborhood schools, the student population is diverse. Nearly 50% of its students qualify for
the free lunch program, and the most current demographics indicate that student body is 37%
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Caucasian, 34% Hispanic, 12% African-American, and 4% Asian. Two-thirds of the students are
male (Inside Schools, 2014).
At Quest, or Q2L, as students and faculty call it, the entire curriculum, indeed the entire
culture, is built around games and game concepts.
[S]tudents create virtual worlds in the online game "Minecraft," communicate over an in-
house social network, and learn about Pi by stepping into an immersive digital
environment that is controlled by a dozen or so infrared cameras that are tacked to the
classroom walls. (Sutter, n.d.)
Students also do work in more traditional ways, with textbooks and written assignments, but the
framework of the learning experience is interdisciplinary, based on systems thinking. Here,
students do not just play educational games to reinforce concepts, instead, the curriculum is built
around game design principles in a more holistic way (Salen et al., 2011). An interdisciplinary
math and English course for one grade level is called Codeworld, and in another, math and
science are taught together in a course called How Things Work.

[Katie] Salens theory goes like this: building a game even the kind of simple game a
sixth grader might build is equivalent to building a miniworld, a dynamic system
governed by a set of rules, complete with challenges, obstacles and goals. At its best,
game design can be an interdisciplinary exercise involving math, writing, art, computer
programming, deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills. If children can build, play
and understand games that work, its possible that someday they will understand and
design systems that work. And the world is full of complicated systems. (Corbett, 2010).
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Salens theory is one that seems to be supported by authors such as Clive Thompson, who
explains that The fun in a game isnt in having mastered it. Its the process of masteryof figuring out
the invisible dynamics behind how the things works, revealing its secrets (2013, p. 149). This is the
process not only of games, but of an excellent education, and it is exactly what students at Quest are
Douglas Rushkoff argues that the lack of time our internet-fueled world allows for significant
reflection is causing the collapse of traditional narrative. No longer can we take the time, he argues, for
one hero to complete a full cycle of the journey made famous by Joseph Campbell, a narrative structure
that has been crucial to the creation, organization, and retention of learning experiences. However, he
offers this caveat: Computer games may, in fact, be popular cultures first satisfactory answer to
the collapse of narrative.Video games have surpassed all other forms of entertainment in . . .
cultural importance because they engage with players in an open-ended fashion, they
communicate through experience instead of telling, and they invite players into the creative
process (2013, p.154). The comparison between this description of video games and the
educational experience most educators would like students to create for themselves is striking.
While the cost per student at Quest is higher than average, the faculty and their game
designers argue that they are creating from scratch. Their goal is to build a model that can then
be scaled at a much lower cost, using many of the materials they have now developed. Test
scores are decent, particularly for a five year-old school not particularly well aligned with
traditional methods of assessment. Students at Quest have outperformed their peers in the New
York City school system in both math and English every year except in 2010, when math scores
averaged 671 and the city average was 675. About 60% of the schools students have chosen to
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remain for high school. The 40% who choose to leave, according to Salen, are going to some of
the best schools in New York (Sutter, n.d.). An effective, engaging, and affordable curriculum
can be successfully built around games in general and video games in particular; the students and
faculty at Quest prove this every day. The question is-- are we learning the lessons they are
There are, of course, critics who believe that video games and systems thinking have no
place in education. Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation insists: "If cognitive
talents rise correspondingly with the proliferation of screens and the sophistication of shows and
games, why hasn't a generation of historically informed, civically active, verbally able, and
mathematically talented young adults come forth and proven the cultural pessimists and aged
curmudgeons wrong?" (2008, p.92). If Bauerlein is looking for examples of historically
informed, civically active, verbally able, and mathematically talented young people then he can
look to the Google Science Fair, Ted Talks Ted Under 20 playlist, or a host of other
examples. For instance, a then fifteen year-old Canadian inventor, Ann Makosinski, had a friend
in the Philippines who was failing school because there was no electricity at her house. She
couldnt do homework after dark. So Makosinski invented a small flashlight powered by body
heat built with four components. Its cost? Twenty-five dollars. Mass produced, the cost would
likely be much lower. While there is still work to be done, the audacious nature of her solution is
impressive (CBC News, 2013).
This compelling story of the flashlight has all the elements of a video game. The tag line
might read: The challenge? No electricity and no conventional power source to produce any.
Using only easily available and inexpensive components, design a light bright enough to work
by, so your friend can do her homework and succeed in school. As Salen, James Paul Gee, Jane
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McGonigal and a number of other reformers have said, all good video games are built on solving
problems. Of course, young, innovative thinkers have always been around. The difference is that
now they have the ability to connect and collaborate at a much higher rate and at a younger age.
For the most part, geographic limitations are no longer constraining the development of
innovative ideas. If we can tap into that kind of passion and motivation about learning how to
solve real problems for real people into the education of all students, there is no telling the kind
of human capital that be created and harnessed (Gladwell, 2008).
In Chris Ruens book Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger for Free Content Starves
Creativity (2013), he argues that The more we embrace the authenticity of our digital selves, the
less important our real lives feel in comparison to the images and friends we find on our
faithful, mirror-like screens (Loc. 563 of 4942). He urges caution, and this is wise. When done
thoughtfully, though, using the internet in general and video games in particular within the
school day and for specific purposes can actually be a way of teaching students how to integrate
the digital world into their real world. Here, the work they do would not be anonymous; it
would be collaborative, as with a SOLE. While it is still likely that students will connect with
others around the globe, the best friends they make will likely be sitting next to them. They will
also have the benefit of an adult guide (perhaps more expert than in Mitras model) close at hand.
Rather than being required to power down the moment they set foot on campus, students may
benefit more broadly from a balanced approach to integrating digital technology use into their
daily lives. Setting up a false dichotomy where their lives are connected and their education is
not seems a riskier proposition.
The reality that students are faced with is broken, according to McGonigal, a game
designer. Games make us happy, she says, by provoking positive emotions. They are hard work
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that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that nothing makes us happier than good, hard
work (Loc. 478 of 7154). So it makes sense that when players are engaged in a game that levels
up just enough to keep the challenge interesting without making it too difficult to surmount, they
will keep playing, over and over, until they learn how to defeat the obstacle and meet the
McGonigal points to the ways in which games can help improve learning, but also how
they can help harness that learning to support those in the midst of a health crisis or to
collaboratively attack global problems. She references Herodotus story about the Lydians, an
ancient people who survived a famine by eating one day and playing games the next to keep their
minds off their hunger. After eighteen years of this, the King decided that they would play one
last game. He split the population into two even teams, where the winners would head off to a
different land to build a new civilization, and those remaining would be able to live on the
resources then available. This story has recently been supported with DNA and ecological
evidence that indicates the ancient Lydians that left their home survived and flourished,
eventually becoming known as the Etruscans and leading the Roman Empire (Wade, 2007).
McGonigals point is, games saved the civilization, and they can do the same today.
As a result, she and her colleagues have created several games that try to harness the
allure of the epic win to solve difficult global problems: A World Without Oil (2007),
Superstruct (2008), and Evoke (2010). The Institute for the Futures latest game is Maker Cities
(2014) a game that combines urban planning with the Maker Movement. Its DIY urban
planning, something that is sorely needed in the communities of many students.
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Video games like those built and deployed by McGonigal and her colleagues as well as
those being produced at places like Quest can educate students and indeed all players in a very
powerful, immediate, and meaningful way. Sharing ideas within the context of video games and
using them to slay real-world evils does not divorce students from real life. In fact, it may
engross them more fully in the epic quest of their own lives.

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