What We've Learned About Games and Learning: An Interview with Kurt Squire (Part Two)

In the design world, "fail and fail often" has become a mantra. What were some of the most instructive failures you experienced working on the first phases of the Games to Teach project and how did they inform later developments in games-based learning?

Oh, there are so many. I have to start with Supercharged, though, which I still get requests for to this day (and the longer it sits, the better it becomes in my memory). We de-emphasized art production and style prioritizing the real-time simulation, for reasons including too few artists at MIT, the fact that scientists didn't really care if it looked good but did care if it was an accurate simulation, and funders' interest in having a fully 3D game. We could -- and probably should -- have prototyped much more in 2D and put the story and fiction through more cycles of refinement.

The biggest failure, though, is that we weren't up front enough about these limitations and failures. The nature of academics (in this area, at this time) required foregrounding successes (which we had). I wish, though, we had been more candid about our failures and implored our colleagues not to make the same mistakes we did.

This is one area I gain inspiration from the game developer's community. It's not uncommon to see a game developer throw down at GDC and challenge designers to stop making the same mistakes. In fact, they create a space for it through sessions such as the game designer's rants. I can easily imagine Harvey Smith or Eric Zimmerman threatening to disown any colleagues who repeated their mistakes. We don't have any space for that.

A few things we did right: Offering a suite of games instead of "one game to rule them all". Mapping out genres and affordances. Using academics as a chance to explore concepts like Augmented Reality. Experimenting with commercial game engines and tools like Neverwinter Nights to understand their potential for education. In retrospect, I wish we would have been even more daring. The work on Environmental Detectives has blossomed to the point where there's now a Spanish class at the University of New Mexico that uses iPods to get kids in their community learning Spanish, and there's a direct line between a conversation between Eric Klopfer, Walter Holland, and Philip Tan at MIT and a classroom full of kids who realize that they can learn Spanish by becoming actively engaged in Spanish speaking neighborhoods, and that's pretty cool.

Throughout the book, you address the constant push for "evidence" that games-based learning works and for measures to assess participatory culture's value in the classroom. What is the current state of our knowledge about the success of such practices? What criteria should we use to evaluate the kinds of projects and programs you are describing?

The current state of the evidence is that we've privileged certain questions (i.e. "Is this working to meet educators' learning goals) over basic questions such as "Is this a good game, when judged by the standards of participatory culture?" We haven't had, that I'm aware of, an educational game that has inspired fan fiction, for example. We need to stop evaluating games primarily by evidence for learning gains along relatively constrained measures and develop more robust measures to understand whether games are inspiring interest in target domains, connecting learners to new social networks, or leading them to produce things.

These critiques aren't wholly new, but I think as educational researchers, we may have copped out on answering these questions. It's easy to blame No Child Left Behind or even Race to the Top, but the real challenge and opportunity is to design a game that might, say, connect youth to more wide reaching social networks and then to empirically demonstrate how a game succeeds in doing so. (Fortunately, the geographically-based nature of school districting and "sequestering" model of educational assessment ensures that schools will look relatively weak as comparisons).

I want to see mechanisms for measuring if playing an educational game inspires youth to create a work of fiction, a film, or build a game. We need to develop longitudinal research programs that analyze youth development over time and begin to model how youth who participate in such a game playing (and production) network differ from those in more traditional environments. This means getting beyond statistical models borrowed from agriculture (which involve simple causality), and looking more broadly toward areas like data mining or machine learning. These kinds of analyses happen now in marketing through sites like Facebook; let's hope it finds its way to education.

Early in the book, you cite Will Wright as saying that anyone who wants to design an educational game should "start with systems." What do you see as the value of games for teaching systems-thinking and why is this approach so central for redesigning American education?

Most games can be productively understood as simulations -- representations that seek to depict systems evolving over time. It's one thing that games (especially Will's) do that other media do less well. Even relatively linear fighting games include fighting "systems" that must be mastered to excel. You might argue that even adventure games -- the most linear of games -- require players to take a step back and to understand the game as a system in order to succeed.

The importance of systems understanding is something near and dear to me personally. My own undergraduate education was in Interdisciplinary Studies, and my course work involved studying natural and social phenomena as systems rather than as discreet disciplines. The world itself does not naturally occur by disciplines, which is something I think we often forget the longer we live with categories such as biology, chemistry and so on. Research on the cutting edge of each of these disciplines crosses over into others as we try to understand phenomena.

The global challenges we face today -- from global warming to poverty to the Middle East -- won't be solved by single solutions. The painfully simple, yet still instructive September 12th game arguing that a war that kills innocent civilians only breeds new terrorists is a good example of something games do more easily than other representational systems.

We have to guard against fetishizing systems thinking, I think, just as we need to guard against computational, design, logical, procedural, metacognitive, or critical thinking, all of which at one point or another were offered as "the new Latin" (or the new Algebra, or more recently Logo). There is no panacea, but there certainly are models of thinking that are of increased importance in today's work. So far, none of these ideas has itself cured the world's problems. We might also go too far in dismissing how Latin / Algebra / Logo may not have solved all of society's ills, but they can be robust ways of thinking (or toolsets) that people employ. I've met many people who trace their love of language to an inspiring Latin teacher or their love of programming to Logo. But I digress.

As you note, many teachers express concern that games are not "perfect simulations," that there are built in biases in the ways they represent the world. How valid is this concern?

I don't see this as a valid concern, any more than the concern that a book would have authorial bias or that a filmmaker would employ a frame. We need more, not less critical understanding of how particular media shape the kinds of messages they tend to produce (to paraphrase McLuhan). I'd rather see a teacher use a horribly biased game and use it as a springboard for conversation than to treat a text as the ultimate authority.

You advocate passion-based learning, such as that which surrounds games, yet, as you note, many educators insist that learning is a discipline and that students should value learning for learning's sake. How can we resolve this disagreement about the role of pleasure and personal interest in schooling?

My wife, Constance Steinkuehler likes to distinguish between "learning for learning's sake" and "learning the things that I want you to learn for learning's sake". Meaning that when pushed, even the most liberal educator who wants to inspire a love of learning may not be entirely comfortable with a student who loves learning about monster trucks or bow hunting. Indeed, it's hard to separate the ideal of learning for the intrinsic value of learning from the content itself.

For example, the scientists I've met working at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, for example, tend to describe their work in terms of a passion for understanding the universe, or even unraveling the mystery of how stem cells form IPS cells and then somehow know how to self-organize into tissue and organs. They don't, however, spend a lot of time talking about learning for learning's sake although many (not all) come across as genuinely inquisitive.

So, we have evidence that most people will throw themselves into passion-based learning, whether it's a passion for bow hunting or a passion for writing fan fiction around The Gilmore Girls, which schools usually don't recognize. We have a set of values that are recognized in formal schooling, although it often doesn't match up well with what people in the world care about.

I like the idea of promoting genuine inquisitiveness as a value (or passion) that schools should produce. I can't think of any better way to kill inquisitiveness than No Child Left Behind, which depending on the day, I might chalk up to being an unfortunate consequence of that legislation or a designed attempt to stifle independent thought.

Either way, we need to acknowledge that most people organically develop passions for things. These passions may not be the same that parents, teachers, or society might want them to have. Liberals like me tend to offload this concern toward a general "love of learning" without really considering that there are certain things we "want" them to love or develop passions for. I think we'd be much better off if we did, and asked, "What kind of a curriculum would truly inspire a love for history, biological systems, or an inquisitiveness toward the world?".

To borrow a page from James Paul Gee (and yourself Henry), we do (in America at least, I think) have an uneasy relationship with pleasure, particularly with kids. Perhaps it's our Puritanical roots, but Americans seem peculiarly suspicious of pleasure, which in most cases I've studied, is wrapped up in learning (as is perhaps pain). Pleasure is often something to be denied (especially so for women, who are socialized to care for others before themselves). One of my favorite political thinkers, Al Giordano often challenges his (very liberal) readers to fully embrace pleasure, and you can almost see them wince at this challenge to simply do things that make them happy. Fortunately, Henry, this isn't a quality I associate with you.

Kurt Squire is an Associate Professor of Digital Media in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Interim Director of the Education Research Integration Area at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. He is the author of over 75 workson digital media and education and most recently Video Games & Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age.