Wednesday, July 12, 2006

gee interview

Extracts from a long interview with James Gee about game playing and learning.

This made me think that there are distinct advantages to the co-creator approach, that the scaffolding extend into supplying substantial pieces of the code. Otherwise it is not practical to produce a good conversation, "Shooting is an easy form of interaction to program; conversation is not". I write this from the perspective of someone who has always favoured the building the game from the ground up approach.

In extreme summary, using games fruitfully in learning is all about:
  • being a producer or co-producer, not just a consumer
  • how to think about complex systems
  • allowing the participant to input into the design process (co-design)
  • that knowledge can often imply moral values
  • conversation, rather than killing (also a gender issue)
Not so much about about:
  • teaching content (game can be good at that but it's not their main potential)

I would not want to claim that "video games have positive effects,"...I argue that video games can be good for children and adults when played actively and thought about at a meta-level in terms of their design features and the sorts of interactions they allow or encourage.

What is most powerful about video games, I would argue, is that the "consumer" (player, learner) is also a "producer." Players actively co-create the virtual worlds of games by the decisions they make and the actions they take. In opened-ended games, the game is different for every player. Further, they can fairly easily build extensions and modifications to many games

The biggest thing limiting games in education in my view is the lack of good artificial intelligence to generate good and believable conversations and interactions (and we really don't have to solve fully the probably intractable conversation problem to get good verbal interactions going in games). Shooting is an easy form of interaction to program; conversation is not. We need games with expert systems built into characters and the interactions players can engage in with the environment. We need our best artifical tutoring systems built inside games, as well. And we need to have these systems used "just in time" and "on demand".

We don't want to rush too soon to ask questions like "Is this game teaching (academic) history or biology?". Games are first and foremost teaching the player how to play the game and ultimately master them. But a good game -- and Medieval Total War is a great game -- are teaching players (if they are playing them reflectively) how to think about complex systems. Thinking reflectively and well about complex systems is a crucial skill for the modern world where workplaces, communities, government, global institutions, and the environment are all complex systems. In such systems a great many things interact with each other and the consequences of local actions can readily radiate outward to have quite unanticipated consequences. Another thing good games are about -- and this, too, is crucial for the modern world -- is design. A game is an intricately designed world that encourages certain sorts of actions, values, and interactions. At the same time, the player co-designs the game's world by the actions and decisions the player takes. The player brings the world alive and in open-ended games every player ends up with a different world and having played a different game. Players can also use software that comes with the game to design new scenarios, levels, and even make modifications to the game. Many of the complex systems we interact with in the modern world (e.g., new capitalist workplaces) are designed to encourage certain sorts of actions and interactions, for better or worse. So, first of all, whether dealing with children or college students, we want to encourage them to think reflectively and act reflectively in regard to both the design of the game and the complex system that the game's world constitutes. Games like Rise of Nations, Civilization, Morrowind, and StarWars: Knights of the Old Republic already lend themselves to this sort of reflection.

One area where games have great potential is in creating worlds in which people can reflect on and know what it is like to act on certain sorts of moral ideas. Churches and ideologically-driven organizations (like the Neo-Nazi organization, National Alliance) already use games to embed people in worlds that reflect certain sorts of moral views. We educators are badly behind the curve here. I would love to see a game that got players to reflect on the sorts of values and decisions embedded in the work of being a scientist. Too often our students fail to see knowledge production as morally laden, but it is and that is what gives it value. (By the way, StarWars: Knights of the Old Republic can lead to a good deal of interesting reflection on identity and responsibility for past deeds.)

Many women play games, but I think one reason some of them don't is that games are not yet really strong in conversation and human interactions. This is changing, in part in massive multi-player games, where there is a great deal of conversation and interaction. I believe that many people -- not just women -- want to live in fantastic worlds where a lot happens and where they can explore and make decisions, but where killing is not the primary object.

Games can teach facts well and certainly could be used for this without much change in schools. But the real potential of games is to get people to think, value, and act in new ways. A game like Civilization can get the player to see that history could have happened in different ways and that what happens happens for lots of different reasons that interact in complex ways. The player can also see that a history game could be designed in different way to focus on a different theory of history. To me, this is the heart of history as a knowledge domain, not mere facts. To use games in school, we need teachers who actively scaffold thought about the game and its content and who actively tie it to an enhanced curriculum. The real issue for the future will be: Are we going to use games just to get schools better at skill-and-drill, or are we going to use them to get students to think deeply about the meaning of knowledge in different domains?

Let me say something about "basic skills," as well. Of course, when you learn to play a game or a genre of game (e.g., first-person shooters or role-playing games), you have to master both basic and less-basic skills. If you look at a game like Rise of Nations, you will see that good games always "teach" basic skills as part and parcel of playing the game or a simplified version of the game. They also always introduce skills not in isolation, but together in sets that constitute strategies for accomplishing certain goals and tasks that the player clearly wants to accomplish (and knows why). This, too, is a far more effective way to teach "basic skills" than is on offer in some schools.

Video games most certainly represent the emergence of a new form of multimodal "literacy", a new way of integrating words, images, sound, actions, values, decisions, and interactions. It is a way that many young people today find natural. It is also a way that creates fairly optimal conditions for learning, even learning tied to written texts.

Games will work well for many people 35 and under. For older people I think they need to be used in a different way. Games force older people -- like me -- to confront new ways of learning and thinking. They really bring home the ways of learning we have ritualized and taken for granted and been rewarded for in the past, ways which often don't work that well in the modern world. Games also really confront us with aspects of our own personality and ideas about learning and who we are. When I started playing games a couple of years ago as a 52-year-old, I found it the first really hard, really new form of learning I had done in years. We middle-aged people ride our experiences and skills for all they are worth, but often don't have to learn really new things in new ways. But the world is changing and everyone is going to need to learn new things in new ways. Games are a great site for this -- but older players may need support and help. I found learning to play games brought back the sort of excitment I had in graduate school when I was learning syntactic theory. In both cases, you really feel new mental muscles growing.

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