SteamCo Talk on Videogames and Learning

On the 24th and 25th April, I presented at the first SteamCo event in Liverpool (http://www.steamco.org.uk/home). At the event I met a number of very interesting and very informed people to discuss a number of ideas on how to improve the lives of learners through effective open collaboration. My focus was a talk on Videogames and Learning and how the way we are often encouraged to follow frameworks in assessment strategies is problematic at best and harmful to overall education at worst. If you are interested in the transcript from that short ‘Pecha Kucha’ style presentation, you can have a look at it below. Each paragraph represents a twenty second elaboration on the images that you can see in this presentation: IanMattSTEAM All the links to my research and product explanations that were also given in the session can be seen at http://www.education.leeds.ac.uk/people/research-students/matthews, http://myromo.co.uk, and @ianrmatt.

My name’s Ian Matthews and I’m a radical proponent for the argument that says the way we teach is wrong. It is my belief that the education system via its treatment of ‘learning’ as a quantifiable notion is fundamentally flawed. Now, to fully right this wrong as I see it would take more than purely…

…a quick talk like this but suffice as to say that my rationale for this is that classroom environments are effectively counterintuitive to the way our brains are designed to acquire knowledge. To explain this, I’m going to show you a game. The game is called One Chance and it was developed by a guy called Dean Moynihan back in 2010. As I explore this with you, I also intend to outline briefly some of the work certain prominent academic theorists have created to help define the studies of videogames and learning as well as how I have professionally dealt with these issues with my company’s product here, called Romo. Right, think back to a videogame you may have played.

It can be anything from a lengthy, modern game such as a Bloodborne, a GTA, or a SimCity or something more casual such as a Candy Crush, an Angry Birds, or a Wii fit task. It could even be something more retro such as Pacman or if you’re roughly my age, an early Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario Land. Who here can remember a level or a task from one of those games?

Who can remember where they were when they first played it? Who can remember any of the music? Anyone want to hum it? So what we can easily see here then is that the context of gaming helped you learn something. You didn’t see it as learning though as you had no real defined assessment to prepare for though did you?

Imagine then if you had a game and you were told that you were going to spend a six month period preparing to play a game in which you knew you had to defeat its main boss but that you weren’t actually allowed to play it, only revise for it by attempting hypothetical scenarios that could be part of the games content. You’d only get one shot at it, you wouldn’t be allowed to talk about it with anyone whilst you were playing…

…and the actions you took in it would even define your perceived intellectual ability in later life. To make my analogy even more obvious, imagine if we attempted the same approach in teaching kids how to swim. Now, what you may be thinking is that this might be a nice little intellectual teaser but that actually since the purpose of games is to serve as entertainment rather than as prelude to assessment, that this argument doesn’t hold much water (if you’ll forgive the previous swimming reference).

Well, that’s not an unreasonable assertion in of itself but that’s why I feel we need to change the way we assess rather than the way we learn. If you think about it, it is akin to putting the cart before the horse, somewhat, if we think that defining the outcome is more important than the experience of learning. So, this is where I will relate to this game, One Chance. In this markedly retro looking game with its blocky graphics and tinny audio, you play a character called John who is a father, a husband and the guy who discovers a cure for cancer. Quite the hero, it would seem.

However, as the opening statement tells us, “In six days, every single living cell on the planet Earth will be dead. You have one chance”. It doesn’t say what the one chance will be for or even what actions you have to perform. It simply situates us within a sphere of influence (the game) in which we have agency over a character and an insinuation that we will be encouraged to act in a way that we feel appropriate to the narrative.

So, as you can see here, the opening scene is in what appears to be a bedroom. We have control over John’s movements left and right but no purpose as such. We simply attempt via trial and error what it is we are being implored to achieve. This is what I refer to as the Learning Rhetoric. We are given agency over a situation which in turn creates a particular relevance to the player/learner. When given control of something, a toy, a game, a car even, our innate desire will be to explore the limits of the thing which we hold or the character we are inhabiting.

At no point in this scenario should I therefore need to explain what the player/learner must accomplish; I as an observer (rather than teacher) can just gauge the response within ‘safe’ parameters and potentially set questions to determine how and why certain choices were taken.  As the game progresses, these choices become obvious insofar as after you pick up the paper to see how your accomplishment has been received by the outside world, you have the choice to potentially skip work to reward yourself for the work you’ve done.

Now, before I go any further as to the narrative of the game, by this point, the player/learner will have been producing ‘work’ in definable areas such as defining personal identity, producing mini-outcomes, taking risks via customisation and pretty much all of the areas that you can see highlighted here. These areas of learning were defined by an academic called James Paul Gee and these pretty much define where I’m taking my PhD studies over the next few years. I can discuss these in much more detail later if anyone’s interested.

For now though, looking back at One Chance, as you progress with the game, it turns out that the cure you have been working on is actually deadly and despite much testing, it appears that it will wipe out all living things on the planet. But you already knew that, no? It did say that after all didn’t it? Here’s then where another area of learning kicks in; empathetic response. Faced with a scenario that we are told is hopeless, do we still pursue a positive outcome by persevering at work, or do we consider other options?

The game offers choices such as whether or not to stay at home with your wife and daughter in light of the problems for instance but now is where the title of the game becomes prophetic. The browser you play in remembers who you are and if you’ve played it before. If you don’t like the choice you make, you’re led to believe that that’s it. Tough. You might save the world. You might not. You might be selfishly ignoring the world’s plight for your own gratification or you maybe throwing away your one chance at happiness. And what if you’re actions aren’t appreciated by everyone. What then?

Might someone take the choice away from you? One Chance is purposefully different from other games though in that every other game scenario can be reattempted until you are happy with your outcome. It’s scenarios such as these that allow teachers a far greater opportunity for learning than purely didactic learning by rote. Not only are the philosophical questions going to be far easier to tackle with the immediacy of situations such as this one here but if you were attempting to teach a learner maths in a grounded, visceral way, surely it could be accomplished in a game such as Minecraft where you can plot area, fractions, multiplication questions and so forth.

Similarly, talking about the dramatic intentions of Shakespeare in Macbeth is going to be far more simple if we were to set it to the background of playing in landscapes and vistas such as this one. How much easier do you think it could be to talk about the importance of the land to the character when you as a teacher have set a learner the task of conquering the kingdom themselves? When Lady Macbeth says “Glamis thou art and Cawdor thou shalt be” can you not see how a GCSE student might feel more connection to it from a perspective of agency?

To me at least, this shows that we therefore don’t need curriculum frameworks to engage learners in complex thinking; we need games. We need what James Paul Gee calls semiotic domains in which active learning can take place in ‘safe’ environment whereby a fail only encourages a learner to try again rather than give up. We need to tap into the intrinsic desire that learners have to beat their own high score or retry for a different outcome. And we should encourage this revisitation. We wouldn’t trust a doctor who did it right once twenty years ago but hasn’t done this for a while, so why would we think our ability to learn in its truest sense can be quantified in this way?

And that then brings me briefly onto Romo. As Education Consultant at Osborne Tech, it was my job to create a curricula for the new KS1 and KS2 computing curriculum that would help teachers unfamiliar with the concepts of computing and programming to be able to teach it to learners that may be more confident than the teacher themselves. I knew that the only way to do this was to tap into the gaming mindset that we all possess.

So far it’s been a runaway success and I’ve been delivering web events, CPD sessions and all sorts with this little guy. This is because I can show that you don’t need to be an expert; you just need that environment in which you can try again and feel as though you’re learning how to as a result. And it’s only when we see that as the assessment goal rather than a series of stats first tasks can we then be said to be providing the best and most effective learning experiences within our classrooms.

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