EDT791: Navel gazing

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Wed, 04/30/2008 - 12:37

When I signed up for EDT791, Video Games, Literacy, and Learning, I was cautiously optimistic. I had heard James Gee speak about literacy in gaming at ASU before he became a professor, and he really caught my attention with his discussion of the language skills being used and gained in everything from World of Warcraft to Yu-Gi-Oh!, so I knew both he and this semester's professor, Betty Hayes, were serious about learning concepts present in games. In spite of this, I was still skeptical about the course's relevance to me.

To say that I have a passion for gaming would be correct, but it understates the fanaticism with which I follow the entire industry. Gaming, and video gaming in particular, is core to my identity. I start every day with the delicious combo of of Nutty Nuggets and the latest gaming news from the likes of 1Up and Giant Bomb, and I end each day with a cup of yogurt and commentary from places like Penny Arcade and Level Up. My day is peppered with visits to Gamers With Jobs to read and participate in the latest discussions and articles. I wasn't sure if that passion would be matched by educational researchers; and my biggest concern was that I strongly felt that a course like this could only be delivered successfully by someone who took gaming seriously as both a hobby and an industry in addition to studying it academically.

During the first session of the course, Dr. Hayes talked about having recently played Oblivion, World of Warcraft and other titles with such enthusiasm that this concern was quickly alleviated and I was able to focus on the basic hypothesis of the course: Vital to the success of popular games is that they effectively teach and motivate players within the game space. From understanding and communicating within semiotic domains, to sympathizing with identities through role-play, to navigating the complex social networks that surround particular games and gaming in general, successful games establish an environment in which effective learning becomes not only enjoyable, but essential.

But, so what? What does it mean and how does it matter? I believe that it means that educators, and at a larger level, society, are now challenged to adapt to an environment where students, parents, and citizens not only expect, but will soon demand compelling educational experiences. Learning materials, regardless of the media in which they are presented, need to acknowledge complex systems and the situated meanings in their presentation. Cultural models need to be recognized and analyzed. The rote memorization of facts, and the reliance on standardized testing need to be abandoned, as both concepts are crutches upon which we support incredibly outdated theories of learning and assessment. In fact, our basic ideas about what assessment is and how it should be used need to change fundamentally. It's time for some navel gazing.

For traditional educators and, particularly, the entire bureaucratic system built to "support" them, this much-needed introspective analysis and resulting evolution can be incredibly frightening and daunting. It essentially means that years of (very outdated) materials may need to be abandoned and, therefore, millions of dollars "thrown away" as a result. But, I believe strongly that past costs should not be a factor in any important decision, especially those regarding education. I'm not entirely optimistic that these sorts of sweeping changes will happen any time soon - and they probably shouldn't. But it's certainly time to get a bunch of smart people on the task of spending a lot of time figuring out how it all should work.

Through the past several months in EDT791, I've seen a room full of skeptics, including myself, come to really understand the sorts of valuable lessons to be gleaned from games. As educators, we now see places to using gaming where we didn't before. As gamers, we now see bits of learning sprinkled throughout out games. It's all become so much more than "educational gaming" - a phrase marred by connotations that evoke memories of amateur, low-budget video combined with multiple choice quizzes and presented by poorly animated characters. I'm excited to see where this emerging field goes - and I want desperately to be a part of it all. So, while class is now officially "over," you can be sure you'll continue hearing from me about learning and games.