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

In the book, you discuss, in relation to Montessori Schools, the concept of "normalization," to explain why some learning environments support students in their natural desires to learn. Yet, implicit in that critique is the recognition that some of this desire to learn has been trained out of the current generation of students through standardized testing and other familiar schooling practices. Given this, what steps would we need to take to create a mind-set among students which would allow them to fully benefit from the kinds of playful, participatory and passion-based modes of learning you describe in the book?

Absolutely. In writing the book, I became captured by how profound this idea is that learning should involve a cycle in which people 1) develop an interest or curiosity, 2) engage in activity to satiate that curiosity (usually developing skills in doing so) and then 3) wrap up and reflect upon that work. For Dr. Montessori, that was the core "game play cycle" of learning, and it works for me. To really embrace this, we'd have to acknowledge that any time you're learning something "for school" or "for a test" it's arguable whether or not you're learning.

As an example, James Wertsch did some excellent studies around the fall of the Soviet Union in which he asked if History had to be believed to be understood. Wertsch was interested in to what extent Estonians "bought" the history of the Soviet Union that they had been taught along side their own family histories. It turns out that Estonians didn't fully resist Soviet sponsored history but didn't entirely buy it either.

And that's a good metaphor for what happens in school. Studies of students' experience in history, chemistry or physics reveals that they can parrot back what they're supposed to know pretty well (more or less), but only when we're truly engaged does it make a change upon us as people. Restated, learners (perhaps adaptively) don't always make themselves available to being changed by formal schooling.

Playful, participatory learning to me does a lot of things. Play, as Eric Zimmerman describes, often times involves an invitation to come and try on a new mode of being. It suggests a mutually agreed upon suspension of disbelief. Participatory culture involves a commitment that if you invest in this activity, you can and should have opportunities to shape its outcomes, including the rules by which it operates.

To make this vision a reality, I think we need to acknowledge that learning requires something like Mimi Ito's cycle of hanging out, messing around and geeking out. We need spaces in which there is low stakes involvement in new ways of being, and then clear trajectories toward becoming fully functioning participants. I don't think it's feasible to reorganize schools tomorrow by this logic by any stretch. However, we can use the edges of the system (summer school, extended school days) to introduce spaces for hanging out and then (ideally) use more formal, organized periods for geeking out.

All of this involves the assumption that learners are autonomous, sense making agents who organically seek out learning experiences, though.

When people talk about bringing games into the classroom, they often act as if there were only one kind of game. Yet, throughout the book, you are attentive to the issue of genre, both in terms of the affordances of different kinds of games for teaching different kinds of content, and in terms of different kinds of gamers having preference for different kinds of game play experiences. How central do you think issue of genre should be to discussions of games-based learning?

One of the first questions I remember asking you, Henry, when I got to MIT was about genres. Educators are not trained to think about genres. Social scientists tend to think about stable lists of features inherent to fixed categories. Genres, in contrast, are historically contextualized and serve as one mechanisms to organize communication across cycles of production and consumption. Without them, we have only horrible art film that no one understands or cares about unless they are paid to do so. Genres also embody crystallized patterns of story, character, interaction and so on that are known to work which provide designers springboards to work from. Hopefully I didn't bastardize your position too much.

Educators designing games need to understand and use genre in very specific ways. Educators struggle with the fact that our audiences have differential experiences with game genres. As an example, I can't assume that every student in a class has played First Person Shooters and intuitively understand the genre's controls or tropes (such as move through spaces to clear it of enemies). If you've never done it, it's fun to sit down with someone new to a genre and watch them puzzle through the most basic of ideas (why can I interact with one object but not another?). Genre knowledge is a bizarre and interesting thing, and it makes you re-realize one more reason people enjoy parody.

As the lead of a design shop, we use genre all the time in very strategic ways. For example, we're currently working on a game about stem cells that we hope will some day teach most every adult the basic concepts of what stem cells are (and are not) and how they might contribute to a science of regenerative medicine. Our designers, Mike Beall and Ted Lauterbach had this brilliant insight that you could build a game around stem cells through "virtual life mechanisms" represented through a Bejeweled type interface (see figure 1).

Building on Bejeweled bought us a lot of things for free. If you see this interface, already you know that you're going to be manipulating symbols that might interact with one another toward building an overarching pattern. This is a form of computer interaction that 10,000,000s of people know about. We can use it to communicate ideas, much as documentarians use the mystery genre to tell stories in history or science.

Other times, we want to be in the business of inventing new genres. Trails Forward is a game that tries to take the rhythm and timing of fantasy sports, as well as sense of playing with reality, and create a new genre of "real life data prognostication" (or something like that). Basically, we're experimenting with the idea that the world is full of data that makes an excellent game board. There should be game experiences we can build by giving people compelling choices on top of these data systems, and then as researchers we should be able to study what they do.

We'll see how it works, but both examples capture the idea that you always design in terms of genre, but sometimes you're trying to reach a goal (reach a lot of users, sell a lot of games) which requires using well understood genre conventions, and other times, you're trying to innovate which means building on genres but also being open to new ideas.

In terms of building teams, I think it's crucial to have people who share a common love for certain genres but who secondarily are well versed across them. Games borrow across genres so rapidly and productively that you can't afford to have a group locked into one.

Your phrase, "replaying history," is interesting because it implies both reimagining the past through "what if" scenarios and it also implies replaying the game, changing variables, and seeing how they impact the outcome. Both seem to have been part of the practice when you brought Civilization 3 into a world history classroom. Both imply an understanding of history as a process, a logic, a system, rather than as a body of content. How does this relate to current understandings of how history should be taught?

Current thoughts on History tend to focus on moving away from names and dates and toward understanding history as cycles of interacting systems. Definitely history as a process (and, geography as well) are key to how people think about it in those domains. My own thinking with Civ is colored by the idea that world history is a unique challenge in that the world across 6000 years not bounded by nation states requires letting go of organizing categories, which isn't easy to do.

One key difference may be that history as a field is very wedded to the concept of narrative. History through games involves narratives but not in the same ways. Some of the most interesting work in history seeks to use tools like AR engines to get kids playing and building historical games.

One common concern about bringing games into the classroom is that they are still heavily gendered outside of school with boys more likely to be heavy gamers. What insights has your research brought us into the different experiences of girls and boys working with games-based learning?

So far, our research has shown that consistent with broader research in education, games themselves aren't as important (as a medium) as the content of the games. Meaning, building a game that involves non-obviously stereotyped genders in which players use science to make a difference in the world tends to increase girls self efficacy. For example, we built a game in which players are doctors analyzing CT scans to help patients. In our studies, girls began with lower self efficacy than boys but after playing the game, passed them along several measures. These results match results others in science education in which teaching science in the service of helping others tends to promotes girls' development. (Oddly, we also found that girls did better with Supercharged).

So far, counterintuitively we're seeing that games tend to work better for girls, compared to boys.

One thing I'm reminded of as we do these studies is that school, as a game, really stinks for girls (especially in middle school). The classes we observed with Supercharged involved girls mostly trying not to stand out during class discussions for fear of being branded a nerd. Games disrupted this to the point where they were able to participate along new lines in which they were much less at risk for being socially ostracized.

As I look at games and education for girls, I'm much less struck by how this medium will systematically exclude girls and much more by how gender in our schools advantages and disadvantages boys and girls in different ways at different periods in time. I'm especially concerned with the plight of low income boys (including whites) who construct identities entirely oppositional to schooling and how games could be a route to re-engage them. Poor boys (including whites) aren't especially beloved in this society, and reports abound at how they are gumming up principal offices and sucking up teacher time through behavioral issues.

Games offer an opportunity to speak to each of these populations and potentially tailor learning experiences to each. We're a long way from getting there, but disruptive technologies like the iPhone, iPad and disruptive forces like iTunes suggest that the predominant order of schooling could change sooner rather than later.

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.