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

One of the many pleasures of running this blog is being able to introduce my readers to people who are doing cutting edge thinking about the many topics -- from fandom to serious games, from media literacy to civic media, from early sound comedy to transmedia storytelling -- that matter to me. Today, I want to introduce you to David Hutchison, the author of a recently released book, Playing to Learn: Video Games in the Classroom. Hutchison's book promises over 100 game activities appropriate for classroom use, a selection that spans across academic subjects (language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, history, geography, health & physical education, drama, music, visual arts, computers, and business) and grade levels (including both elementary and high school). Writers like James Paul Gee, Kurt Squire, xx and David Shaffer, have made the conceptual argument for the pedagogical value of games; our own Education Arcade has been one of a number of academic research projects focused on designing, prototyping, and field testing games for instructional purposes; Hutchinson's focus is on what we can do in our schools right now, using projects already on the market, to tap student and teacher interests in games. In the course of the collection, the models many different conceptual approaches for thinking about games -- including many designed to foster core media literacy skills. The result is a book which will be valuable to classroom teachers or for that matter, parents who want to engage their children in meaningful conversations about the place of games in their lives and about how games structure the way we see the world.

I recently had a chance to interview Hutchison about his goals for this project and wanted to share his responses with you. In explaining the value of games for schools, I often say that "nobody is advocating bringing Grand Theft Auto into the classroom" and go on to point to a broader range of other titles which do seem more appropriate for school use. But Hutchinson makes a fairly compelling argument for why schools should be addressing Grand Theft Auto in the comments which follow. His arguments here is consistent with his perspective that just as traditional media literacy involves learning to think critically about mass media, games literacy has to include asking hard questions of this still emerging medium, questions concerning representations, ideology, and of course, commercial motives.

What motivated you to write this book? Why do you think teachers should be incorporating games more fully into their classroom activities?

I wrote this book in part because I enjoy playing video games myself and I am always looking for synergies between my play time and my work time as a teacher educator and university professor. So too, I was fairly surprised to see that a book like this hadn't yet been written given the long history of video games in American culture. I also couldn't find many video game-centered lesson plans on the Web which also surprised me.

I believe that video games should be referenced in the K-12 classroom for a variety of reasons. First, video games can provide teachers with an effective instructional "hook" since so many students are gamers in their out-of-school lives. Second, many (younger) teachers are also gamers. Through gaming, they have cultivated a knowledge base which can serve them well as part of their pedagogical toolset.

Despite this, most of the teacher-gamers I have spoken with over the last two years see a disconnect between their in-school teaching jobs and their out-of-school gaming activities. It strikes me as nonsensical that so many students and their teachers may be going home at night to play the same games, but then returning to the school the next day with no intention of ever sharing their mutual passion for video games.

I would also say that from a cultural point of view, I see some video games as harbingers of the future. They play with the "world" - past, present, and future - in ways that are impractical (sometimes impossible) in the real world. Some games purposefully bend the laws of physics in exploring new virtual gameplay ideas. Multiplayer video games (and the Internet more generally) experiment with new forms of social organization that go beyond our everyday ways of living.

All of this strikes me as pedagogically interesting and worth studying in K-12 schools.

Some previous books have focused on teaching about games, others on teaching through games, but your book seems to encompass both. What do you see as the advantages of each?

I would say that most of my book treats the "video game" as a cultural artifact that has a history, was created, is used in various ways, and is sometimes discarded for various reasons.

In this sense, I would say that the activities in the book are more focused on teaching using games. I have heard from a few video-games-in-education researchers who see the activities in this book as a good beginning point, but not necessarily the end point of where we need to go in integrating video games into education. To a certain extent, I would agree with this view.

For example, except for a couple of activities, the book does not focus on living life in a virtual community, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft. Educating students in Second Life strikes me as teaching through games. But so does learning about military tactics by playing America's Army. James Paul Gee's work gets to heart of how playing video games can transform the learning experience and even supplant traditional ways of teaching and learning in schools.

I would say that my book is more focused on traditional teaching and learning techniques in which the video game is studied as a cultural artifact, rather than "lived through" as an embodied pedagogical experience. Activities which ask students to write a video game review or analyze the leaderboard statistics for a driving game in math class, for example, are fairly approachable by most teachers. They essentially treat the video game as a manipulative that can be utilized as a pedagogical tool by teachers in a wide variety of subject areas.

Your introduction suggests that you see schools as "one of the last remaining formal institutions that can mediate popular culture by examining it closely, holding it to account, and even transforming it at times." What is it about schools which enable them to play this role? What about the argument that schools have historically declared war on popular culture and thus have shown themselves to be anything but objective arbiters of its merits?

This is a phrase that I have also used elsewhere, including my previous book which explores the history of the idea of "place" in education.

I am on purpose expressing something of a idealistic sentiment here that harkens back to the early 20th century promise of a democratic system of public schooling, as articulated most famously by John Dewey and, even earlier, Horace Mann. The basic notion here is that the public school is responsible to the state (which in turn represents the citizenry) and that one of the important roles of the public school is to balance out the decentralized and largely unregulated influence of other social institutions, such as the family, church, private sector, and popular culture. Dewey argued that through purposeful social inquiry guided by the principles of the scientific method, schools could foster in students a democratic impulse that strengthened the social and democratic commons - hence the notion of the "common school."

Today, public schools are bureaucratic institutions that are generally underfunded, used for political fodder by both the right and left, and tasked with an overwhelmingly complex job. Yet schools still remain the last bastion of mandated community involvement in child socialization. As parents and citizens, we count on this bastion to mediate, counter, and offset the unchecked influence of other less formal institutions, such as the peer group, family, and popular culture, by providing a corrective or compensatory measure to a student's education. This role is fraught with difficulty and it is often contested - which is appropriate in a democratic society.

Such corrective or compensatory measures may only sporadically be successful, indeed, sometimes they fail miserably, but I would say that the idealism that schools can continue to play this role is still in place in the eyes of many adults - why else would so many battles continue to be fought over the role and purpose of public schools in American society?

Many teachers might want to "protect" children from exposure to media violence, yet some of your activities ask students to pay close attention to controversial titles, such as Bully or Grand Theft Auto. What do you see as the value of teaching youth to adopt a critical perspective on such games? And what do you say to those who might argue that you are putting them at risk by asking them to engage with these works?

In writing the book, I set it as a goal for myself to incorporate the Grand Theft Auto series into at least one activity. (The "Hot Coffee" controversy was brewing around me as I began writing the book :) The GTA activity I chose tasks students with creating their own kid-friendly open-world game that doesn't include all the adult content we normally associate with games in this franchise.

I also wanted to encourage teachers to deal with controversial ideas related to video games. There are contributed discussion articles in the book that address debates related to video games and violence, video game addiction, gender bias in video games, and health and video games.

My sense is that the book could have been roundly criticized - and rightly so - if I had chosen not to deal with the many criticisms made of video games - for example, that they produce obese layabouts with no social contacts in the real world who are prone to violence and live in a fantasy world 

Discussing the above stereotypes in class is worthwhile in my view. Studying these stereotypes by having students conduct research to test their veracity is even better. There are also activities in the book that aim to help students effect personal lifestyle changes related to their video game playing habits, such as paying close attention to their posture and reducing the amount of time they spend playing video games each week.

It seems to me that there is disconnect between gamers and those critics - Jack Thompson is a popular strawman here - who look at games from outside and see little of value worth highlighting. Since many students are gamers when out-of-school, it makes sense that turning a critical eye toward video games and especially social, medical, and legal commentaries on video games are appropriate topics for study in schools.

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.