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Video games and learning: Individualization, simulation, and complexity

[cross-posted atnLeaderTalk]


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In my post for LeaderTalk thisnmonth, 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 toncustomize the learning experience for each individual player. In other words,nthe game you play is different than the game I play because we have differentnskills and knowledge and because we make different choices during the game. Thengaming engine adjusts to our differences, providing each of us with a learningnexperience that is both unique and optimally challenging for us as individuals.nThat’s a pretty powerful argument for considering the use of video games inneducation. As I said in anpost long ago:

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Video games are structured so that learners constantly operate at the outernedge of their competence. Participants are continually challenged but thenchallenges 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 famousndevelopmental psychologist, called this concept the zone of proximalndevelopment – the area in which students are ready to grow. Video games arensimilar to teachers in that they take the role of what Vygotsky called the ‘morenknowledgeable other,’ the entity that helps students bridge the gap betweenntheir current ability and new capabilities. In education, we often call thisnscaffolding – the idea that learners can progress to new skill levelsnwith structured, individualized, just-in-time assistance. Video games are verynadept at scaffolding participants’ learning. One of the reasons that video gamesnare so compelling / engaging / ‘addictive’ is that participants are continuallynfaced with new challenges that are neither too easy nor too difficult. Thisnmotivates them to move forward because the next step is always in sight and isnperceived as being achievable.

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We can foresee a day in the hopefully-not-too-distant future when allnstudents have laptops and teachers, rather than seeing video games asncompetitors for their students’ attention, will instead have a wide variety ofnpowerful educational video games available to them. Teachers then will be ablento work individually with one group of students while other student groups movenforward with the help of meaningful, substantive (not simplistic drill-and-kill)ngaming software. Voila! The age-old dilemma of effective classroomndifferentiation 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 increasinglynrealistic. Video game designers are getting better and better at reproducingnreality through the use of sounds, images, and videos. Corporations,ngovernments, and the military all are using video gaming engines to producensimulations for employee training. As I said in anothernpost from my gaming series a while back:

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As the educational and/or ‘serious’ games movement grows, we will begin tonsee complex, realistic, accurate simulations of ancient civilizations (e.g.,nColonial Williamsburg, the Maya, Great Zimbabwe), historical events (e.g., thenPelopponesian War, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Long March), scientific andnmathematical processes (e.g., space exploration, Archimedean physics, Euclideanngeometry), and the like. I am looking forward to this day. Right now even thenmost popular education-oriented games (e.g., Reader Rabbit, JumpStart, OregonnTrail, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?) have been notably simplisticncompared to commercial virtual worlds such as Second Life, EverQuest, and Worldnof Warcraft. I believe that education-oriented simulations will be much betternat stimulating deeper, richer learning than the textbooks, videos, and learningngames of today. It’s hard to argue that making authentic decisions in the rolenof 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 questionsnon the computer, or watching a short video on the subject.

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Reframing video gaming technologies as productive simulations rathernthan time-wasting games will go a long way toward fostering acceptancenamong educators. Simulations have a long history of use in K-12 classrooms. Whatntoday’s gaming technologies allow us to do is to create simulations that enablenlearners to do the actual work – and make the actual decisions – of whatevernprofession or society we wish (past, present, or future). This, of course, makesnthem incredibly authentic learning experiences and is why their use isnskyrocketing 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 childrennfind them engaging. They’re fun and they take advantage of powerful learningnprinciples as described above. But one aspect that often gets neglected, Inbelieve, is the fact that most good video games are pretty complex. As ThenNew Yorker noted in its review of Steven Johnson’s book, EverythingnBad 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 werensimple exercises in motor coördination and pattern recognition. Today’s gamesnbelong to another realm. Johnson points out that one of the “walk-throughs” forn”Grand Theft Auto III” – that is, the informal guides that break down the gamesnand help players navigate their complexities – is fifty-three thousand wordsnlong, about the length of his book. The contemporary video game involves a fullynrealized 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 – likenMonopoly or gin rummy or chess – which most of us grew up with. They don’t havena set of unambiguous rules that have to be learned and then followed during thencourse of play. This is why many of us find modern video games baffling: we’rennot used to being in a situation where we have to figure out what to do. Wenthink we only have to learn how to press the buttons faster. But these gamesnwithhold critical information from the player. Players have to explore and sortnthrough hypotheses in order to make sense of the game’s environment, which isnwhy a modern video game can take forty hours to complete. Far from being enginesnof instant gratification, as they are often described, video games are actually,nJohnson writes, “all about delayed gratification – sometimes so long delayednthat 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 ofninformation 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 coordinatencompeting interests. In denigrating the video game, Johnson argues, we havenconfused it with other phenomena in teen-age life, like multitasking -nsimultaneously e-mailing and listening to music and talking on the telephone andnsurfing the Internet. Playing a video game is, in fact, an exercise inn”constructing the proper hierarchy of tasks and moving through the tasks in thencorrect sequence,” he writes. “It’s about finding order and meaning in thenworld, 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 ofntheir 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. Thenworst thing a kid can say about a video game is that it’s tooneasy.

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Wrap-up

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When our students, nearly all of whom have grown up immersed in video gamenexperiences, 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 arenindividualized, authentic, and intellectually complex. Figuringnout how to make that happen in our K-12 classrooms is the challenge for us asnleaders as we consider what forms 21st-century learning environments need tontake.

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