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Katie Salan was the keynote speaker at Northeastern University’s Teaching with Technology day (4/29/08). Salen is a game designer, interactive media designer, animator, design educator, and author. Her affiliations include: Parsons School of Design, Gamelab Institute of Play, The International Journal of Learning and Media, and the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative.
Salen primarily discussed two projects she is now actively involved with: The Game School, a game-based, public, gr. 6-12 school; and Gamestar Mechanic, a game in which the player/student learns to create games. (links related to Gamestar Mechanic and the Game School are in the adjoining box.) Ms. Salen fires off faster than pellets fly from a game warrior’s Gatling gun, and far faster than I could transcribe them. Here’s what I was able to catch as it whizzed by.
Designers are trying to understand the connections between how games work and how learning works. Game design becomes pedagogy. The games themselves are “systems to think with”.
The question of “what is school ?” morphed into “where is school?” Young people learn in many places outside of school. How can educators leverage the things students are doing outside of class? The place called school is just one node in a network of learning spaces; the educator’s task is to connect the nodes. Similarly, the world of information is networked and the students’ task is to connect information nodes. In the traditional classroom there’s not a lot of social stuff happening . The result is a “disconnect” between the outside and inside networks of information kids have access to.
Game designers connect with teachers by pointing out similarities between good teachers and well designed games:
- Both create a need to know in students
- Both pose scaffolded challenges
- Both create contexts rich with feedback
- Both create cyclical opportunities for revision and reflection
In good game design there is always a challenge that is just out of reach. The digital environment allows students to make mistakes. They discover that first attempts are consistently terrible and they stop looking for perfection on the first try.
Games are data rich learning landscapes. To play a game means to be concerned about performance within the game space which is viewed through a data rich interface.
Game playing has changed the way young people think about collaboration. The digital age requires new literacies, not in place of the old ones, but on top of them. Games are good at bridging these literacies. Perhaps above all, games are good at teaching “systems” thinking. In the 21st century, disciplines do not stand alone; interdisciplinary information sharing is an important part of learning. The process of game design leads to interdisciplinary synthesis. “How is math similar to writing?” In integrated domains, lie new challenges. There is no standardized test for systems learning. We are beginning to develop new kinds of assessment models, and a rubric around systems based thinking.
The ability to learn is expanded by giving students the opportunity to share what they know. To enable that, there is need for an infrastructure to allow them to share their knowledge across a variety of contexts.
Boys and girls initially have different approaches to game design. The girls tend to start off with a narrative approach whereas boys place enemies everywhere. When each discovers that their initial efforts are unsuccessful, their strategies move toward convergence.
To reiterate: This is an incomplete summary of Salen’s talk, the result of the limitations of my note taking. If anyone wants to fill in the blanks, I welcome them to do so by adding comments or writing a post of their own.
I’m not a game player. I have children who are, and I’ve made a half-hearted attempt to have them teach me their games, but when I see how long it would take me to become proficient enough to experience the game as anything but a novice, I retreat to more familiar ground. Lack of direct experience is an obvious handicap for one trying to understand the edu-potential of games, but direct experience is not the only path to understanding. Without it, I still can draw from my own observations and introspection:
- I would not, at present, choose to go to a school or take a class where the curriculum was primarily games based.
- I can’t name any game that achieves a significant educational goal, other a mechanical practice skill like typing, that could not have been attained with equal or greater efficiency in another way.
- Nor have I seen, in my own kids whom I watch from close by, or others, any significant learning other then gaming skill itself, arising out of their game play.
I put these out as challenges to educational game advocates. Despite my reservations, I believe that I’m more than open to being convinced (by evidence, not exposition) that there is educational potential in game play. I will go out of my way to hear Katie Salen and others extol the virtues of game play, and listen skeptically for concrete data to blow away my skepticism. Better yet, hand me a game that teaches me something faster than I could learn it any other way.