What are Games Good For?

2009 June 10
by Leah Yale Potter

While waiting for the fifth annual Games + Learning + Society conference to commence in Madison, Wisconsin today, I’ve been catching up on a debate politely raging among the social issues game community.  The subject: do violent video games cause violence?   You wouldn’t be wrong for thinking this  an old saw from the 1990s culture wars.  Remember Senator Lieberman in a Mortal Kombat showdown with commercial gamers that in 1994 led to industry self-regulation in the form of the Entertainment Software Rating System (for introducing American youth to “Animated Blood and Gore, Animated Violence,” Mortal Kombat received a “Mature” rating).

At the crux of the continuing controversy is whether or not playing video games affects behavior, cognition, and skills.  And here’s where the discussion gets more relevant for the games and learning community.  While entertainment game designers tend to downplay any relationship between, say playing Grand Theft Auto and stealing cars, educational game designers are tackling the opposite problem: how to impact player behavior and close the gap between playing and learning. Jim Diamond, a colleague at EDC, put it this way:

While I think games may potentially be effective tools for “slipping in” content, I think the well-designed ones may be far more valuable in terms of helping players to develop specific skills related to the content by linking the accomplishment of learning/performance outcomes to mechanics through problem solving scenarios. The skills that develop may support or inhibit “violence,” but I don’t think there’s an inevitable causal relationship in any way.

The theme of this year’s GLS conference is “Learning Through Interaction.”  We’ll see what new-fangled ways game designers are coming up to influence kids today.

Last 5 posts by Leah Yale Potter

2009 June 10
Josh Brown permalink

Actually, the debate over games and forms of “new media” and violence has a much longer historical record. While preoccupied with policing morality, Anthony Comstock viewed “cheap literature” also as, in the words of the title of his 1883 book, Traps for the Young. More recently—well, for some of us more recently—a link between violence and “new media” was claimed for comic books, involving congressional hearings and the threat of official censorship (circumvented by the industry’s self-regulation, which ended the edgier, more adventuresome and subversive–and also exploitative–phase of that medium until the arrival of the underground comix of the 1960s—chronicled most recently in David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague]). In that instance, some progressive thinkers joined forces with conservatives to squelch the medium (while in Great Britain, as told in Martin Barker’s Haunt of Fears, the left was at the forefront of the censorship campaign).

2009 June 26

Contrary to my typical instinct, which is to mimic what Josh did in his post and look to the past, I’m going, instead, to barge forward into the brave, new world of the present. We spent a lot of time in the ITP Core 1 course this past fall talking about the gaming issue. Our reading for the classe focused on James Gee’s very interesting and provocative “What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy” (Palgrave Macmillan paperback, 2007), which argues (persuasively I think) that the structure of many video games and the ways in which players are engaged with games and learn to master them has a lot to teach us about how to rethink teaching and learning in contemporary formal classrooms. Many people willfully misread Gee’s conclusion, claiming he’s arguing that teachers should use video games to teach with. That’s not what he’s suggesting. Rather, he speaks about the “situated cognition” and “connectionism” that playing video games develops among users (especially expert ones). If the staff is interested in exploring this issue further, I highly recommend the Gee book as a discussion motivator.

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