Why Grand Theft Auto Should Be Taught in Schools?: An Interview With David Hutchison (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of an interview with David Hutchison, author of Playing to Learn: Video Games in the Classroom. In the first part, he discussed his ideas about the place of games in education and about the value of teaching young people to think critically about the games they play. Today, he takes up the question of the place of game design activities in school and addresses some of the criticisms about the pedagogical uses of existing game titles. This part of the discussion is timely since Katie Salens, a major advocate for teaching young people how to think like game designers, will be speaking as part of the CMS colloquium series this week. Watch this blog for information about the podcast of this event. Some of your exercises are designed to get students to tackle design problems and to begin to make their own games. This is very much along the lines of the kinds of design literacy which Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salens have been advocating. What do you see as the value of teaching students to think like designers?

I would say that several of the activities can be used as exercises that aim to get students to think like game designers, but it is the Afterword that highlights the important role that game design can play in schools, if only in a cursory way, given that game design is not the main focus of the book.

I like to think of students as moving from being consumers of media, to being critics of it, and then creators of it, so game design is the natural next step once a number of the investigative activities in the book have been completed.

The value comes from seeing students as something more than "students" in schools. What I mean here is that teachers should consider casting students in a variety of creative roles, such as "authors" and "scientists" as they study language arts and science for example. A sixth grade student who writes a story is an author and he or she should be honored as such, perhaps by having their story published, illustrated, bound, and placed in the school library for other students to borrow.

It is a similar process for video games. By seeing themselves as a team of game designers, a group of tenth grade students can work through the very same game development stages that professional designers go through: brainstorming a story idea, pitching that idea to others, writing a story, scenario, and dialog, collecting and designing assets, programming the gameplay, and testing and distributing the game.

The above process certainly sounds daunting and of course it takes a great deal of time and commitment to produce a video game, but the good news is that are now a number of terrific educational game engines that students and educators can choose to use. Several of them streamline the game development process, so that students can focus on creative learning activities, rather than the minutia of programming their game in a professional C+ game engine.

Many educators might agree that games can be powerful motivators of learning but they also may communicate a great deal of misinformation about the world, especially given the fact that most commercial games are built for entertainment rather than educational purposes. How would you respond to this critique?

Even misinformation provides teachers with an opportune teachable moment in my view, if only to correct that misinformation and investigate how it came to be.

Consider the example of Battlefield 2142, the multiplayer first-person shooter which is set in a post-apocalyptic world, in which the effects of global warming have reduced the habitable landmass on Earth to a fraction of what it is at present. The battle for control over what little habitable landmass remains is the basic premise that underlies the battles the player fights in the game.

Environmentalists and teachers may wish to take issue with the science that underlies the premise of this game, but the game itself provides teachers with a hook for getting students to consider the implications of dramatic climate change. Although there is now general agreement among scientists that climate change is occurring today and that humans are (at least in part) responsible for causing it, there are competing views among researchers as to the long-term effects of climate change on the planet - some of the changes may even be positive from a certain perspective.

What is represented in Battlefield 2142 may be an extreme view, but there are other dire predictions from climatology experts that teachers can reference as they talk about the issue of global warming with students.

Teachers can also reference the game as they discuss the ways in which the popular media represents scientific research more generally, as well as alarmist views of the future. A key question here may be the role that games, such as Battlefield 2142, potentially play in undermining serious research on climate change. My view is that the game highlights one of the most important social consequences of dramatic environmental change - the competition over increasingly scarce resources - which some environmental and military analysts - I think of Thomas Homer Dixon in particular - argue will lead to more wars in the coming years.

That's the premise of the game and it is represented, at least in a general way, in some of the futuristic military scenarios that see environmental change as a national security issue.

David Hutchison, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, Brock University (Ontario, Canada) where he teaches courses in educational foundations (history of education) and social studies.

David is the author of two books in the fields of environmental education and the philosophy of place. Growing Up Green: Education for Ecological Renewal was published in 1998. A Natural History of Place in Education was released in the spring of 2004.

For more information, check out his website at www.playingtolearn.org