Do learning games really educate?

Disclaimer: I hate educational “games.” They’re unimaginative, lack unique identity, and have no long-term influence. This has been my experience, at least.

And so, as I started reading Games and Education,” I thought Bruno Faidutti pointed out really crucial perspectives on games as a means of education. Faidutti argues that games must be pointless and school games are essentially scams that fail to “trick” students. His argument on how games try to mimic reality but instead pose a “systematic” and “dishonest” image of the real world was, to me, quite thought provoking (Faidutti). I related this back to Ian Bogust’s Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames which expressed how games can create a concentrated reality in which the game designer subjectively selects which aspects of reality to include. Going along with this idea, I wondered whether educational games paradoxically limit perspective and learning by forcing students into a particular mindset that reduce improvisation and creative thinking.

Additionally, Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College reinforces my perspective on the prejudiced schooling system. Although, I am also conflicted here. Should schools “have a right to thrust students into situations that challenge ‘their inside beliefs and understandings’” (Carnes, 93)? This can be seen as an undermining act of students’ personal beliefs. Yet, school is also a time when our beliefs should be challenged to allow us new perspectives. Carnes mentions the difficulties of changing belief by describing the many “social selves” of man that can only be influenced if previously-held beliefs are let go (Carnes, 95-97). I for one have noticed my own beliefs wavering and re-molding as I take classes that really broaden and challenge my perspectives on certain issues, such as some of my feminism classes I’ve taken. But I’ve noticed this change mostly in the areas of feminism I hadn’t really considered or understood before (i.e. its origins versus modern-day feminism or feminism and the law, etc.). So maybe Carnes is right, and the reason I have been influenced is only due to the fact that I didn’t have strong perspectives to throw out before acquiring new ones.

Carrie Heeter and Brian Winn’s study “Gender Identity, Play Style, and the Design of Games for Classroom Learning” showed that games have learning benefits for girls and boys and that games should focus on exploration and speed. They also argued the importance of gender identity in style of play and how learning games can engage girls and non-gamers. Going back to Faidutti’s piece, I wondered how this study may have changed if the researchers had not considered just game style and game mechanics for learning but the impact of games on learning. Yes, game mechanics impact the way different users interact with the games, but in terms of education, are games really the best way to learn? I find that question and its lack of answer in this paper a weak point of the study.

Faidutti’s piece also makes me question the ideas presented in Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. If we’re thinking about games and education, how can we better motivate students to fully engage in learning games and how can we inspire creativity like in the Foldit game where players had the opportunity to become a part of a pluralistic and improvised environment. Maybe the key to learning games is looking at how games like Foldit have been and can be used to mobilize players to find intrinsic rewards through their gaming experience. Faidutti writes that students “know perfectly well [learning games are] a scam.” Creating games similar to the new crowdsourcing games that emphasize an emotional experience with a bigger picture and intrinsic rewards may enable students to not only connect with the games on a deeper level but also inspire real world knowledge as opposed to the rigid application of games that “lead to excessive formalization” (Faidutti).

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