Games, New Media and Learning in Argentina: An Interview with Ines Dussel (Part Three)

You've drawn heavily on the work of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiatve. What do you see as the most significant continuities and differences between their approach and what you are finding in Argentina?

I've been reading all the work done by the initiative, and for me it stands out as the most encompassing and organized effort to understand what is going on. I think I provided some of our keys for reading this work already, but let me try and summarize them.

One is the idea of a public culture. That there is something such as a common public sphere that has to be reconceptualized beyond Habermas' notion of the argumentative skills and rhetorical plays but that still includes some notion that there is something to be done together and for everybody, is an uncommon approach in most studies of new technologies. I think we share an engagement with an idea of public culture that remains open and subject to debate, and does not get captured by the state, the market, or the isolated individual.

The second has to do with the kind of learning that young people are doing with and in new media, trying to approach in an honest, more open way these new practices. We liked very much the notion of "genres of participation," as they help organize what we are seeing in our research. And what I liked particularly is that schools are not left out of the map, but are considered as part of this media ecology. I support the idea that schools can be helpful in organizing interesting and relevant experiences for young children which are not immediately accesible to everyone, and which bear other issues in mind than merely the audiences' tastes. Of course, this means changing the ways in which schools are working with new media, which, as said before, have been focused around issues of safety and potentials threats to children's integrity, when they have not been totally derogatory on the value, ethics, or productivity of young people's activities in and with new media.

We also agree with the general search for a balance between the celebration of new, creative, and democratic forces that are mobilizing the digital culture, and the skepticism about some trends that we do not see as democratic and that tend to extend and reshape current social divisions and inequalities. [When I use "democratic," I am pointing to some discussions in contemporary political philosophy that show how evanescent this term might be, but that still hold to an impulse towards more justice and equality (for me, Jacques Rancière or Bill Connolly are good referents of this kind of view).]

Finally, it is difficult for me to point to a difference, but I would say that we bring to our study different concerns that have to do with different "localities" and cultures, as I was saying in the last question. Lately, with the team at Flacso we've been reading more about changes in authorship, in the balance between the emotional and the rational in terms of learning, in our notions of a common culture, archive or memory (and memory is a cherished thing in Argentina, where it immediately refers to the last dictatorship and to a quest for human rights and justice), and also the need to maintain the differences between simulation and "real life" (I've been reading with great pleasure Sherry Turkle's discussions on this). I would say they are more politically- and ethically-oriented issues. These topics are not directly addressed by the MacArthur papers, but there are none the less many links to their approaches.

As you do so, you seem to be very aware of the existing visual culture of schools. For example, you told me about research which suggests students are sometimes overwhelmed by films they see in the classroom and do not always remember what they were supposed to teach. How can designers of educational games sidestep those problems?

In the research we are doing on the visual culture of schools, many students referred to their memories of remarkable activities organized by teachers using fiction films or documentaries, or asking them to bring pictures about social issues. Students liked them a lot, and valued them as great learning experiences. But when we asked about what they thought they had learned with those activities, they could not refer to any specific content. For example, a student said that her Biology teacher showed the class an image of the cell and that it caught her attention, and that she learned like in a fingers' snap, but she could not name any concept nor "title" for that image. The same happened in social studies or history lessons: students had vague memories about the activities, but all remembered the intensity of the feelings provoked by the viewing.

This is something that interests me a lot, and that I put along a series of readings I've been doing on visual studies, attention and learning. Historically, pedagogy has thought that there is an equivalence, a direct relationship, between seeing and knowing, but psychology and our own historical experience shows that that is not the case. We need to "know" something to be able to "see" it (I am aware that these are complex terms and there are deep philosophical debates around each one but let's keep it simple for the sake of the argument). What are children learning when they "see" something in the classroom? Are they learning what we want them to learn, or something completely different?

The examples mentioned above relate, for me, to something that you've referred to in previous works: the "wow" effect, the emotional impact of media on people. When using images in classrooms, we might get that "wow" feeling, as when the first student says, "wow, the teacher caught my attention," but from that we cannot deduce that she learnt the structure of the cell or anything in that neighborhood.

How to sidestep this problem is a difficult question. The first thing I would say is not to take learning for granted. We have to be aware that the intensity of stimuli and the excitement of the game might provoke them to learn something altogether different from what we wanted them to learn with these activities.

And the second thing I would say is that this doesn't imply that we have to become more explicit of our message or the "content" we want to convey. On the contrary, my reading of these examples is that form and content are divorced in some pedagogical activities, and that "forms" are compelling and complex while "content" is straightforward and unidimensional, and so young people's attention is caught by the more complex and interesting stimuli and do not attend to the content. So, I would say we should struggle to produce better materials that are more consistent in their forms and contents.

You also told me about research you have been doing about the image banks which teachers draw upon in thinking about the world and how these may differ from those which their students bring into their classes. Can you share some of this research with my readers?

Yes, of course. I wrote an essay on teachers' visual culture, based on the findings of an activity I've done in online courses with teachers. I ask them to post a powerful image of our culture. The idea of "powerful image" draws on visual studies and refers to images that impact us for any reason, that have a lasting effect not only personally but also socially.

In this activity, it struck me that most of the teachers chose shocking images that come from photojournalism: the Biafra child, Kevin Carter's Pullitzer picture of a little girl in a Sudanese village, anonymous pictures of children in famine, in war refuges, or hurt or killed by political violence. They endorse a "hyperrealism" that, while it aligns itself with a progressive rhetoric, might have troubling effects as a visual discourse on the social. Most pictures were of children, and children were almost always depicted among ruins. No "happy," meaning no optimistic, narrative was to be found in most pictures (and when it appeared, it was in the line of the Benetton-multiculturalism: black child with white child taking hands and smiling to each other). Also, it was surprising that the Argentinean teachers spoke a "Global visual Esperanto," as Nick Mirzoeff calls it: the images were from Albania, Africa, Palestina, New York, Central America, Brazil, and not many depicted Argentina's landscapes or events. The pictures are all serious, and engage in the performance of denunciation. There is almost no ironic image, nor images that refer to advertising or cultural industries. My guess is that, if the same question was posed to young people, the number of advertising images, and of images of their own production, would be much more significant than in the teachers' selections.

My interest in this essay is with global visual imaginaries, and the visual culture of teachers. There is much more I could say on this, but let's refer the reader to the essay that has been published in a book edited by the National Society for the Study of Education, whose title is Globalization and the Study of Education, and edited by Fazal Rizvi and Tom Popkewitz.

You have been involved in a number of games and learning initiatives. Can you describe some of the work you are doing and explain what kinds of pedagogical and design principles are informing this work?

With my research team at Flacso, we started doing educational documentaries in 2002. We produced eight 30-minutes videos that developed a program to address issues of discrimination and inclusiveness in middle and secondary schools. We tried to build complex and subtle plots, to present the stories always in a dignified way, and never construct people as passive victims. We were always thinking of how and when the teacher would be using these materials, so time constraints and also pedagogical problems of what to show and how to show it were present from the beginning (and we made pilot tests with teachers to make room for that).

But seen from today, I think that at the beginning we were more aware of the conceptual and political dimensions of our work than about the aesthetic aspects of it. And it was a great experience, because we learned a lot about the tensions between content and form. As soon as we started to work with teachers and students, we realized that there were many unexpected things in their reactions to our videos, and that they had to do with the context in which they were seen, with their prior experiences with these type of videos, and with our own pedagogy. And most of all we had to learn to work through and with the emotions elicited by the documentaries.

This drove us to media studies and also to visual studies, and this intersection is still very interesting to me. The question of which type of knowledge is produced by an image, as posed by the French historian Georges Didi-Huberman, remains a potent, even a burning issue, as he says. Sometimes images touch us at a sensitive level, without being able to put it into words, and yet they do produce important effects on us. Could these effects be called a learning or be considered as knowledge?

I am not interested in measuring it, but on understanding what is it that they do to us. Will it last? Will it be attached in our memory to some meanings? Will we, as the students I found in our recent research, just remember the intense emotion we felt without being able to conceptualize or rationalize anything about it? Maybe this is not a bad thing, but we should be aware of which kind of learning or effects some images produce on us.

We then moved to do an animation piece on global warming which was also very exciting, and since 2007 I've been engaged in a team run by Analía Segal, a colleague and friend of mine, that produces videogames. Analía had extensive experience on simulations and games in social studies, and some years ago she decided to experiment with new media, and I joined her. We wanted to explore the potentialities of videogames for learning: they can offer complex narratives, they use a visual language that is closer to young people's visual culture than the schools', they promote learning through immersion in a given situation and mobilize intuitive, bodily language that is scarcely mobilized by traditional schooling, among many other possibilities. The team includes people from different disciplines in the social sciences and young game designers who are key to the project. We know that educational materials are not magical solutions to anything, but believe that they can contribute to make classroom more interesting and more challenging. This might be a poor goal for an educational reformer but it is good enough for us as development team.

One of our principles was to produce materials that were not offered by the cultural industries, neither by their topics nor by their aesthetics. We did research on alternative groups that are working on serious games, and decided to focus on sustainable development and produced three or four games on this subject. The first one is called "Urgent, Message" and is about a messenger in the near future who has to deliver different things to different places, always considering time, cost, and environmental impact.

The second one is called "Villa Girondo" and is a multi-player game. We wanted to explore a different game structure. This one deals with the relocation of a village due to the planned construction of a water dam. Players are asked to assume different roles in the community and decide whether the village will be relocated or not. The tension between progress and sustainability is explored, as well as the centrality and complexity of citizens' involvement in environmental issues.

In the development of the videogames, we included a working group with teachers with whom we discuss and test the games at different stages. And we are doing research on the first developed prototypes to understand how they interact with the real dynamic of classrooms. The questions that interest us are both related to the design of the game and to the pedagogical skills needed to use it in classrooms. Which kind of interactions are promoted by the rules of the game? How important and effective are teachers' interventions? What kind of strategies do young people use when playing the game? Are there constraints by playing the game at school? Which reflections are opened up by the game? Which ones are picked up by the teachers and which ones are left aside, and why? These are some of the questions we are investigating in schools these days.

I was impressed by the distinctive look and feel of the games you shared with me. To what degree is the goal to create games which reflect the national culture of Argentina as opposed to following the "neutral" or "odorless" design practices that shape many commercial video games? Why might it be important for students in your country to see games which look and feel like the culture around them?

Well, I like your comment and take it as a compliment. As I said before there is a relation between form and content. We believe that it is important to provide students with different aesthetics, less standardized and more related to their daily life. But it doesn't mean that one has to close down aesthetic diversity. So while we don't want to follow mainstream games in their options, we do not support any kind of localism that tends to isolate cultural productions. On the other hand, this would be impossible as we are all visual subjects in a global culture.

We hope our games can be played by any child or young person who is interested in these topics. For example, the relocation of villages has been a common problem in Latin America. We include some excerpts from documentaries that give more information and context about real life situations. We believe it is important that schools pick up these debates and provide interesting and challenging opportunities to unfold the complexities involved. In that respect, videogames can be really helpful.

Inés Dussel graduated from the University of Buenos Aires in Educational Sciences and got her Ph.D. at the Dept of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a Principal Researcher at Flacso/Argentina, a centre for research and graduate teaching in the social sciences, and Educational Director of Sangari Argentina. She's currently interested in the intersections between schooling, new media, and visual culture, and is doing research and producing materials for classroom teaching.