How Computer Games Help Children to Learn: An Interview with David Williamson Shaffer (Part Two)

Yesterday, I introduced blog readers to my former student, David Williamson Shaffer, and his new book, How Computer Games Help Children to Learn. This book is a must read for anyone who is invested in the concept of Serious Games or anyone who wants to have a better understanding of what games might contribute to the reform of the educational process. In yesterday's post, he walked us through his roots in Seymore Papert's notion of hard fun and his concept of epistemic games. Here's a bit more background on David taken from his blog:

Before coming to the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Shaffer taught grades 4-12 in the United States and abroad, including two years working with the Asian Development Bank and US Peace Corps in Nepal. His M.S. and Ph.D. are from the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he taught in the Technology and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is a founding member of the GAPPS research group for games, learning, and society. The group recently received a $1.8 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to study games and media literacy in the digital age. Dr. Shaffer has a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for his work on Alternate Routes to Technology and Science and was the recipient of a Spencer Foundation National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Dr. Shaffer studies how new technologies change the way people think and learn. His particular area of interest is in the development of epistemic games: computer and video games in which players become professionals to develop innovative and creative ways of thinking.

Today, I asked Shaffer some of the hard questions which all of us who are promoting games and education are facing. He offers some candid and compelling responses.

You describe powerful activities which certainly require students to deploy a rich array of school content. But by classical definitions, not all of the activities you describe are games. And many teachers remain resistant to the concept of games in school. So what value do you see in referring to these experiences as games?

This is a great question, and I'm glad you asked it. Part of the problem with the word "game" is that there isn't a single agreed-upon definition. The definition I use in the book is closer to some than others--and as you know, I talk about this very issue and how my use of the term compares to others in the book.

A major point of the book is that digital technologies force us to reexamine and rethink a number of concepts whose original definitions come from an age of print literacy: things like games, learning, thinking, innovation, professionalism, school, and so on. It is an argument that I know you are quite familiar with, since you similarly argue that new media force us to reconceptualize the nature of concepts like production and consumption, genre and medium, and so on.

The argument I make in the book is that in the digital age there is a new set of relations between games and school--and school and learning, professional practices and academic disciplines, innovation and education--and this reorganization of how we think about thinking and learning, play and education, creativity and rigor is an essential step in thinking about the future of learning.

Some skeptics have argued that the serious games movement is imposing a utilitarian logic on play (making it into something serious) when in fact, the value of play as a form of mental recreation may come from the fact that it invites us to suspend real world consequences and constraints. How would you respond to this argument?

I've heard that argument, of course, but honestly I think it is a bit of a straw man. First of all, no one (that I know) is arguing that *all* play should be "serious" in the sense you describe here--that is, devoted to some larger purpose. Second, for all the reasons that Seymour and others (and I) have talked about, there is such a thing as "hard fun"--that is, the fun of doing something difficult but worthwhile. It is an important and legitimate part of fun, and of learning, and of being a well-adjusted and happy person. Finally, and perhaps most important, serious games do suspend some real world consequences and constraints. Any game imposes some constraints and relaxes some, abates some consequences and introduces others. Different games have a different balance, and serve different functions. But I don't think there is some form of pure or idealized play (except as a theoretician's fancy) which games that serve some larger purpose somehow "pollute." Any game is played in some social context, and therefore serves some larger purpose.

Other critics of the serious games movement have argued that we are moving too quickly from ethnographic evidence that some kids learn well through games to larger claims that all youth can/should learn through game play. How would you respond to this argument?

Well, not all the evidence is ethnographic. My work is based on experimental studies: we design a game based on a specific set of hypotheses about what players will learn and how they will learn it; then we study the experiences of players to see whether that's what happens. Others in the field have done similar studies, some at quite large scales.

No one would deny that there has been a lot of enthusiasm in recent months and years about the potential of games, and some claims have no doubt been inflated, or premature, or speculative. But that doesn't mean that all claims are suspect: it depends on the claim and the evidence.

I will say that this form of argument (games for learning are all hype) is a little ironic, in the sense that the other major criticism of games is that they will teach kids the wrong thing: that playing violent games will make them violent, and so forth. We seem to think it is easier to learn bad things than good--which is, at the very least, a very Hobbsian view of the human condition.

I do think that an important part of any game is the context in which it is played. So you can take a good simulation and make it part of a game that leads to the development of useful skills, knowledge, values, and identity in service of a useful way of thinking about the world. You can also set up the conditions of play in such a way that the outcomes are quite different.

So I am skeptical of any claims about what "games" in general do or don't do for kids. That's why my book is titled "HOW computer games help children learn" and not "DO computer games help children learn?" We know that children learn from all of their experiences. The question is whether and how we can design experiences that will help them learn things we think will help them become better citizens, happier individuals, and more productive members of society.

You end your book with some speculations on the future of education. How would schools change -- for the better or for the worse -- if various kinds of game-like activities were to displace some of the activities that currently constitute the "game" of schooling?

I don't know what the ultimate shape of schools will be in the digital age. It took decades to design the modern industrial schools we have now, and they look very different from their predecessors. Schools right now focus on standardized tests of basic facts and skills for a paper and pencil world. They need to become more about learning to use sophisticated technologies to find creative and innovative solutions to real problems. I think well-designed computer games can, should, and ultimately will play a large role in that process. But to get there will mean redesigning almost everything about schools in the long run: the architecture of the buildings, the content of the curriculum, the schedule, and perhaps most important, the means of assessment.

This is going to be a big change, and a big task. But as I argue in the book, wise, well-educated, and affluent parents are already using new technologies to help their kids prepare for life in a complex world. If schools don't keep up, they risk becoming at best a footnote in the real process of education in the digital age, and in the worst case, a road to failure and an impediment to educational opportunity for those who can't afford access to the tools and pedagogies for success in a world of global competition.

Some have argued that we necessarily distort the real world phenomenon we are representing when we reduce them to the structures of a game. Do you agree with this concern? If so, how might educational game designers address it?

As Don Norman points out in his wonderful book Things That Make Us Smart any representation of reality is a simplification, leaving out details that are not relevant to solving a particular problem or accomplishing a particular task. Moreover, all of our thinking takes place through representations--whether external representations like diagrams, pictures, or spreadsheets, or internal ones, such as memories, words, or images.

So all thinking is a deliberate distortion of reality in this sense.

The power of epistemic games is that they are based on a specific theory of how you determine what it is safe to leave out in designing a game that models professional training as a way of teaching innovative thinking. The book describes that process in more detail, but the specifics aside, the point is that epistemic games are based on a specific pedagogical theory--a theory about what is worth learning and how people learn it.

There are other theories one might use, of course. But in the end, I think that any good educational game has to be based on a corresponding theory of how learning takes place. The theory might work or not--which is why we test the games we build. But it is that theory that tells you which simplifications you have to make (and which ones you can not make) in re-presenting real world phenomena in game form.