Saturday, October 14, 2006

political economy of games

I agree with this critical analysis of marc prensky by Daniel Livingstone, in that Prensky tends to celebrate the differences between "immigrants" and "natives", rather than analysing their deeper significance:
One way in which I may misread Prensky is the degree to which he is describing the differences (as he sees them) between “natives” and “immigrants”, versus celebrating them. I usually read his stuff as mainly the latter - and I think this is his take, that the changes are almost uniformly for the better. Am I misreading Prensky? I don’t think so, but I’d be happy to hear otherwise. But onto the review…

The question of whether the change is ‘better’ or just ‘different’ certainly applies here. Indeed, in describing the increasing need for immediate feedback and constant stimulation, Prensky could almost be making the same case as Neil Postman does in ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’. Except with the opposite opinion on whether this is a good thing or not.
Although Prensky might play a positive role initially as a populiser / provocateur, we do have to move on beyond slogans such as "digital immigrant / digital native", "engage me / enrage me" and “50% of the world’s population is under 25″

I like the way prensky talked to and engaged my students when he visited adelaide. He's a nice guy and he knows his games but I would agree that deep critical analysis is not is strong point. However, I noticed how he modified his talk for the adult audience next day, changing the main theme from games to engagement

There was a wide ranging discussion (21 comments) of these issues at the powerhouse museum blog following his talk in Adelaide in March

I've been thinking more recently that another way to look at the whole "gaming phenomenon" is through the lens of political economy

For example, in the new attention economy Prensky can a pack a room of adults at $220 a head. Because he is a provocative advocate of "get off our arses and save education through games" (I'm paraphrasing) he can draw a crowd in a way that a deeper, more thoughtful analyst of educational dilemmas cannot. Isn't the economics of this transaction, the whole weird way in which the education economy works, the bottom line here? Grabbing attention becomes more important than real analysis.

I haven't seen much written about this side of it. But I recently heard a paper (Cairns, ACEC) by Sylvia Martinez at a poorly attended presentation which:
"offers an analysis of why the nature of video and computer games is antithetical to traditional forms of school curriculum, content and assessment. In addition, both consumer and school markets are explored to explain why there are so few successful educational games so that we may find ways to encourage the design of educational games that provide compelling, immersive educational experiences"
I've put a link to Sylvia's paper on my learningEvolves wiki and hope to pursue this analysis further.


Colin Hill said...


I agree with your comments but cannot help but 'cringe' when I hear Marc Prensky being cited. We should not be talking about WHAT differences exist between digital immigrants and digital natives exist until we can determine IF ANY differences exist!

Marc is a very clever man. A good author. A good public speaker.

However, he does not speak in facts and doesn't cite any evidence.

I have outlined this on a site
and I'd be happy to hear your comments.

Bill Kerr said...

hi col,

thnx for link to the problem with prensky

I've gathered a number of critical analyses of prensky in one place on my learningEvolves wiki

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,
I'm glad you were at my session - and actually, I thought it was pretty good attendence given that it was the last time slot of the last day...

Anyway, I too have heard Marc speak - he's good entertainment. But in my opinion, if you look at the games he's created they fall short of the ideal of authentic learning in a game context, even if you accept the whole "digital native, digital immigrant" thing.


Bill Kerr said...

Sylvia said: "But in my opinion, if you look at the games he's created they fall short of the ideal of authentic learning in a game context"

Interesting. I'd like to hear more detail about your opinion here.

One of the initial appeals for me about Prensky was that he was developing a game called algebrots which is marketed under the slogan, "Beat the game and pass the course"

There is a lot of hype in the way this game is being promoted but at the end it says, "coming soon"

I'm starting to wonder whether it will ever see the light of day, or, whether it just forms a backdrop to prensky's real game: his very polished presentation

Gary said...


I wrote about the digital immigrant hooey more than a year ago here.

Gary Stager
The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate

Anonymous said...

Is that it? How long has that been up there? That's not much to go on, but here's what I would guess from what's there.

The tagline "beat the game, pass the course" has two messages packed tightly in those 6 words.

1. It is competitive and "in your face" which conforms to his message about "digital natives" -- that they want hard competition, fast and furious, but says little about what the game actually does. From this tag line, I would guess it's a "twitch" game, one that relies on quick reaction.

2. "pass the course" is a pretty clear statement that the game content will be related to things that typically appear on tests in typical algebra classes. It's a very different message than, "play the game, understand algebra" for example. It's a very "school" oriented statement, rather than a learning-oriented one.

Also, the "100% of students play video or computer games" (not sure if I got that word-for-word accurately) is a good marketing message, but essentially meaningless. It's impossible to prove, and even if true, doesn't mean that any percent of students will necessarily like or play this particular game, and therefore learn enough to pass algebra tests. But in marketing, you always like to put those 100% figures up there.

And last, in my experience in getting game designs off the ground, if it's been more than 6 months and that's all they have, there is nothing more behind this idea than a marketing message.

Unknown said...

As Van Eck says "like the person who is still yelling after the sudden cessation of loud music at a party", its now time to think about what works, when and why. Its time to look critically at game making and game playing. The time for evangelising is past

Anonymous said...

I don't think the time for evangelising is past. The fact that Prensky hit a nerve with his native/immigrant mantra shows that people know something is wrong and are searching for ways to explain it.

It's to his credit that he comes up with simple, quotable lines that resonate with people.

I think an interesting question is why does this resonate?

Bill Kerr said...

Gary says this at the link he provided:

"We love cute little cliches referring to children as digital natives and adults are mere digital immigrants. Not only is this simplistic aphorism insulting to the millions of grown-ups capable of using a computer, but it also provides cover for the teachers who have refused to enter the last quarter of the 20th century. After all, they're special.

Why not call such teachers digital ninnies? How about non-learners? Students should not be entrusted to adults so oppositionally defiant as learners. An IEP would be created for a child who displayed such an unwillingness to grow."

That's a bold and provocative interpretation of Prensky's slogan (that "digital immigrants" cop out) but I'm reluctant to be so critical of teachers who don't take up computing in powerful ways. My only generalisation about teachers is that they vary enormously - good ones, bad ones, IT savvy, IT reticent, extrovert, introvert, you name it. It's an amazing group of people who continue to surprise me in all sorts of ways. I know some great teachers who don't use computers much.

Although there are bad teachers it is really systemic forces (The System) that is holding back educational change in the final analysis.

I wrote an analysis of the "IT revolution", Teachers, Systems and Learning theory in July, technological change and systemic change

Bill Kerr said...

I very much liked Sylvia's unpacking of the "beat the game, pass the course" slogan

And also her reflection of "digital immigrants / digital natives"

I agree that the immigrants / native slogan does resonate. It is still a good discussion starter.

My interpretation: Immigrants and natives are different, some young people may well be more knowledgable about certain aspects of digital life (mobile phones, games, MSN chat, My Space for example). Immigrants might have an accent but that doesn't mean they can't be successful, sometimes more successful than the natives. I can still stay ahead of the students I teach because I am prepared to read the manual :-)

However, like all slogans, it is open to different interpretations as well as oversimplifying. I agree with those who argue that Prensky's critical analysis of his own slogans is sometimes lacking.

So I agree with Tony's interpretation too, that we need to dig deeper, at this point, where games and education have suddenly become popular. That slogans alone are not enough.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Bill! I really liked the posting and comments on the technological change and systemic change. I'll have to read that a couple of times.

These issues are SO complex. Changing a system is never easy, it's like wrestling with a greased octopus. I guess that's part of the attraction of simple slogans, they offer a way to get our heads around something that is beyond comprehension.

In the quest for learning games, the failure point is at the intersection of game play and assessment. People are looking at the wrong side of the fence for answers. It's the curriculum and assessment that are inferior, and my contention is that ANY game that tries to make that leap to provide content or assessment based on currently constructed "standards" in education will fail. There is just no magic bullet on the game play side of the fence that will make a great game if it is constrained by these standards.

I think people are working on different ways to assess learning, and that research is critical. I just got a conference announcement from the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), and one of their topics is a call for action research in their schools to come up with measureable criteria for the quality of school culture.

It's a great idea and one that will help prove that things like programming and making games is a good thing for kids.

Bill Kerr said...

Sylvia: "In the quest for learning games, the failure point is at the intersection of game play and assessment. People are looking at the wrong side of the fence for answers. It's the curriculum and assessment that are inferior, and my contention is that ANY game that tries to make that leap to provide content or assessment based on currently constructed "standards" in education will fail. There is just no magic bullet on the game play side of the fence that will make a great game if it is constrained by these standards"

This reminds me of something I said in an old article (invitation to immersion), not in relation to games, but with respect to the conflict between the curriculum and the immersive experience in an engaging microworld, such as that provided by logo:
Computers are such great tools that even neo-Luddites use them to redraft their critiques of computer cultures. While School and neo-Luddites continue to conceptualise the computer as a logical machine then the computer and the curriculum will continue to evolve in harmony, but at the expense of learning.

It is more forward thinking to use non-logical metaphors of the computer. One of my favourites is the rorschach. Different people will use the computer in their own way, to explore their own interests. Another favourite is the mirror. Every now and again you catch a glimpse of yourself in the computer, especially if you are using it creatively.(Turkle, 1996)

Non logical metaphors of the computer create a tension between the computer and the curriculum whereby the computer becomes the medium that carries the quality and the curriculum becomes the technical instrument. The computers becomes an evocative, flexible medium that invites immersion. Computer games are addictive and fun (as the neo-Luddites point out). It needs to be added, however, that some of the best computing software is an invitation to immerse yourself into a microworld where significant learning is likely to occur, provided you have a teacher who understands how the software is meant to be used. Counterposed to the neo-Luddite critique of mindless play is the constructionist idea of hard play.

Sylvia also identifies that it is at the point of assessment based on external "standards" that the undermining of deeper learning breaks down. Important point. I think this means that we need a radical restructure of education to make real progress, which is what Papert was saying years ago - the need for what he called megachange.

Anonymous said...

all roads lead back to Papert!

Bill Kerr said...

Sylvia said:
> all roads lead back to Papert!

Well, we could and have done a lot worse - and certainly I can see why Sylvia might think that I think that because I do refer to and quote Papert a fair bit and have been positively influenced by much of what he has said

I think though that new things about learning are emerging all the time (AI, neurophysiology, new theories such as connectivism) and that I for one have been guilty of not evaluating and moving forward. This is one of the main reasons why I have recently created the learningEvolves wiki. Learning theory is still evolving!

Specifically I suspect that Seymour got a few things wrong which I will briefly identify here without elaborating at this time:
1) epistemological pluralism idea which downgrades the importance of abstract thinking
2) decentralisation thesis which confused / merged structures of the mind (decentralised) with political structures (which are centralised) - Brian Harvey has, IMO, correctly critiqued Papert in this respect
3) commercial path for logo software development into microworlds was either poorly done or should not have been done (keep it open source)

Unknown said...

> all roads lead back to Papert!

Papert is a good communicator, he is also a visionary. His vision for schools and ICT still leads us today. He is my most quoted author.

Two things dissapoint me.

1)For all the money spent on Logo, and a lot was spent, the critics can still say that the use of Logo produced no identifiable change in outcomes. There were lots of anecdotal studies "look at little Jimmy, he is only 5 and he understands recursion" but no hard data.

Now Gary says "put a pig on the scales and it doesn't get any fatter or healthier".

Sylvia says "the failure point is at the intersection of game play and assessment. People are looking at the wrong side of the fence for answers. It's the curriculum and assessment that are inferior, and my contention is that ANY game that tries to make that leap to provide content or assessment based on currently constructed "standards" in education will fail"

But Logo failed to show measurable outcomes, even on its own standards, let alone in school assessment standards.

2)Logo was conceived in the 70's on computers with a few K of memory, and despite its various iterations, never abandoned its clunky user interface. It took outsiders like Game Maker to deliver what Logo promised

Anonymous said...

wow, I really don't see how the quote you used from me supports that. I think it's exactly why it failed, and why educational games are going to fail. We are looking at the wrong thing to fix.

I know there were high hopes for Logo, but I can't see how a programming language alone could be expected to make any change given that the nature of school didn't change. Wasn't the nature of teaching also supposed to change? That didn't happen...

School won the battle, it survived, Logo didn't. Games and game making won't revolutionize school either as long as we try to cram them into the exiting curriculum, bell schedule and subject areas.

I have the sinking feeling that as we argue about which programming language or game making engine is better, the battle is once again being lost because we still aren't fixing school.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bill Kerr said...

Tony wrote:
> But Logo failed to show measurable outcomes, even on its own standards, let alone in school assessment standards...

I don't think that's true. For example, a review study by Douglas Clements and Julie Meredith (1993) includes many examples of improved learning using logo. Idit Harel's study is another which includes traditonal pre and post tests, control groups showing favourable results for her ISDP approach

The results are always clouded by the values of those who interpret them but that is part of scientific reality, being clear about your prejudices when making interpretations.

A paper I wrote in 1994 ( ISDP) was rejected by the maths journal even though I had a pre and post test demonstrating improved performance in fractions without me doing any formal teaching in fractions.

I believe that logo works when the teacher understands the broader epistemological framework but that was too difficult for many teachers and for most educational leadership networks. The same sorts of issues apply to game making IMO. In 1990 logo dominated educational computing conferences more so than game making has ever done.

I agree with Tony's point (2) that the clunky logo user interface contributed to its decline. User interface is important, for early perceptions and quick start, but in the longer haul I think, logo as a version of LISP, is a better language. But Papert and Alan Kaye, with Squeak, don't seem to be able to get the UI right. That's something I would like to understand more, that the learning experts shoot themselves in the foot with a poor UI. It's annoying!!

Anonymous said...

Bill, Thanks for this conversation. Although I am late to the discussion, I was directed here by Sylvia Martinez.

I have added my two bits worth in a blog entry called "The Rise of the Digital Refuseniks.: I hope you can take some time to read and comment.
Tim Holt
El Paso

Here is the article:

Anonymous said...

EVE Online is most certainly the best econ simulation even made in a game. As an economist i loved playing Eve but i had to stop after a while. Now i switched to Virtonomics because i can play it in my browser and it is almost as deep/complicated and cool as EVE online, when it comes to game economy. Also you do politics in Virtonomics which is a lot of fun (taxes, custom dues, budget, elections, etc.)

IF you like economy and politics in EVE you should definitely try Virtonomics out. Just don't quit after few days just because its complicated. When you take time ti learn it, you will enjoy it as well as EVE Online.