Tuesday, November 17, 2009

All you need is to have no life

Jonas Linderoth at the University of Gothenburg published an article in "Digital Læring" or Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy on the value of games for learning. The title "It is not hard, it just requires having no life - Computer games and the illusion of learning" positions the article as a stumbling block right in the middle of the over-enthusiastic rush towards games as a solution for modern education.

I had heard about and disagreed with this article several times before publishing, but reading it I am almost inclined to agree with it. Linderoth points out that there are two ways to gain skills in games. One is by learning to jump better, learning to think more tactically than the opponent or in some other way use the resources at hand better. The other way to gain skills in games is by doing repetitive tasks until you are rewarded with a level, an object or some other affordance that makes your avatar stronger. In short: he makes a clear distinction between what you learn as a player, and what affordances your avatar gains.

So far I am with him, and I think it's a very important consideration. The general belief that games make learning easier is severely flawed. The most important flaw is however in my opinion the belief that games makes it easier to teach what is on some curriculum. I don't know about the rest of the world, but here in Norway we have certain things pupils are supposed to learn each year, and their progress as well as the success of the teachers and the educational system is measured by how well they are able to learn these particular things. Outside of those skills, what the pupil or student learns doesn't count. So if you learn how to dance salsa really well, that does nothing for your grades in mathematics.

Games tend to teach you how to salsa, when what you should have learned is to do maths. If you don't want the game to teach salsa, you have to remove all options for dancing, and only leave options for mathematics. Linderoth describes his argument of the relationship between affordances and skills:
What I aim to illustrate is that a game system can be designed in such a way that you can progress in the game to a certain degree without adapting yourself to the system. A system that means that a gamer can succeed without the effort of mastering gaming skills. Phrased in a more theoretical way this is an issue about how new affordances are introduced in the gaming activity (p 10).

So, to sum up the argument - somewhat brutally, I admit: in order to learn something from a game, or develop as a gamer, the game should have static affordances. No new skills with new levels, no new tools, no gold or achievements, only you and your skill. Most common games which are typical agôn games are like this. They take you to the arena, read you the rules and give you your game-piece. Then it's just you, the board and your fellow gamers, and nothing changes within that frame.

Games where you can gain affordances simply by working diligently at simple tasks are, according to Linderoth, not games from which you can learn anything.

In the light of Scott Rettberg's article on "Corporate Ideology in World of Warcraft," in Digital Culture, Play and Identity, this is an interesting claim. Rettbergs argument is that exactly the grinding aspect of World of Warcraft is what makes it an ideal training ground for capitalist work ethics (p. 32). So, on the one hand you don't learn anything from grinding, on the other hand it's perfect training for many of the positions you can expect to hold as an employee today.

Now, Rettberg's argument gives strong ideological reasons to adapt Linderoth's position on games with non-static affordances, but I am still not totally convinced. The reason is that both in World of Warcraft (Rettberg) and World of Conflict (Linderoth), personal skill is the most important feature for satisfying gaming.

Most players who play a game with levels more than once, learn how to use levelling as just another fixed affordance, and so learn to become better at it, do it quicker and with better results. You can use levelling processes to learn more about the story of the game, hence use it to gain narrative satisfaction, or you can aim at aquiring particularly useful objects which you will then not have to return for later.

The problem with Linderoth's argument, where increased skill and new tools and resources pull in different directions, is that this conflict is just skin deep. For the players who play through a game that demands leveling more than once, the apparently increasing affordances they gain access to become fixed. There are just that many quests, just that many abilities, just that many levels, and that is what you have to play with. Yes, it takes longer to reach that point, and players who think a game ends just because they have reached a certain level, may feel that it's all about grinding. But players have other experiences from games of progression. The game researcher Kristine Jørgensen at the University of Bergen recently wrote a glowing description of her experiences with the new game Dragon Age: Origins, and all who have followed her descriptions of the play process on Facebook know that she is planning to go back to old saves in order to explore the game much further.

Now, we can argue that exploring old saves does not lead to learning, as it's just about repetition of something already done. But for a game which reveales a story that's even experienced as a moral story, a fable even, replaying old saves is a way to delve deeper into the conflicts, the parables and the lessons of fiction, and hence absolutely a way to learn... even if there are levels and new skills and objects to be gained on the way.

However, Linderoth does actually say something along these lines:
The relationship between the player’s skill and progression in using tools and resources is not something fixed, but rather fluid. In one and the same game there can be moments that require more or less skill. It is not as simple as saying that just because a game introduces new tools and resources the player never has to develop her or his skill (p. 12).

But I find that he loses sight of this in his final words:
Games and education have completely different conditions. While games are designed to make players happy, educational practices are legitimate as long as they offer students the opportunity to learn something. To design educational tasks where you can succeed by just waiting and doing some extremely simple, non-challenging activities is hardly appropriate. That would be like giving someone on a diet a set of scales that showed weight loss without the person actually loosing any weight. Maybe the things that make a player motivated while playing games neither can nor should be brought into schools (p. 17).

First, learning is very much about repetition. You learn how to do a certain task, and then you drill that task until you can repeat it easily and quickly. This is how you learn how to do maths, how to play instruments, how to read and write. Each repetition is simple and non-challenging.

Next, you gain new affordances all the time, as you learn. When you have repeated one piece of music until you know how to play it, you get a new set of notes. Perhaps you get to play together with people with different instruments. You get to play in some new spot. Boring repetition leads to increased skill, new affordances and new achievements. You do actually gain levels, and you are not stuck on the same limited board with the same game-pieces for the rest of your life. Rather, if you keep repeating the same things without gaining new affordances, in real life you're stuck on a corner of the game board, without looking up to see that you're just playing a tiny part of the game.

Still, I think that Linderoth's article is very important for developing pedagogic games. I just agree with him on a different premise. I agree because what educators need isn't a virtual representation of how the world really is, but a way to see how pupils perform at a certain set of tasks given limited affordances. For this the games Linderoth promotes would be just perfect.

1 comment:

Klepsacovic said...

It's so inconvenient when all sides of a debate have some portion of facts and reason.

"Games and education have completely different conditions." This reminded me of a recent discussion I had with one of my professors and the idea that came up: Children spend so many their waking ours playing and they learn at a rate that would make a slightly older brain fry. Games and play are how we learn; they're what engage us and keep us interested after pursuit of knowledge starts to get tiring. The hard part is making the games contain lessons without being those obvious and dull educational games.