At the August Serious Games conference, educationally oriented games hogged the spotlight, whether teaching kids math, training sailors safety techniques or virtual role-play to train corporate personnel.  The emphasis lay in imparting some knowledge or skill to players.  Consistent with this, the most touted virtues of video-game-as-medium are their (1) motivational capacity and (2) interactive nature: make learning fun and engaging the learner.

Much of what I saw, however, recapitulated traditional models of teaching and training, implementing fundamentally a push process.  That is, the basic model is still to take content and push it into a subject’s head:  the video game as a glorified textbook or training film.  These projects may, done well, represent a significant improvement over the traditional methods. (From the world of corporate training). However, I am not sure they reflect the revolutionary potential of video games in education, which lies not in one way information flow— finding interactive, game-based ways of stuffing knowledge into a player’s head— but in the potential for games to create knowledge and provide dynamic channels of information flow between students, teachers, administrators, content developers and educational researchers.

Scattered among the more traditional, push designs were projects that highlight the power of video games to radically shift learning from knowledge transfer to knowledge creation.  Zoran Popovic from the University of Washington discussed the FoldIt game in which players with no scientific training or background successfully tackle one of the most vexing challenges in modern biochemistry: solving the 3-dimensional structures of proteins.  Donald Brinkman from Microsoft talked about the JustPressPlay project, in which the challenges of helping incoming freshman adjust to university life is made into a game.  Importantly, they are not taking a ‘how to succeed in college’ curriculum and merely putting it into a game format.  Instead, they literally make a game out of students’ real life activities.  The game stimulates non-game behavior and learning; that is, the educational content is not strictly encoded in the game but arises as the game promotes new learning from real-life experiences.  Data arising from the students’ as they play form a critical information stream in the reverse direction, allowing the game and it’s content to be dynamic and fluid.  Alan Gershenfeld talked about Gamestar, in which students don’t play but design games, the idea being that designing a game around content requires mastery of that content.  More fundamentally, it demands that the students assimilate information into their own cognitive framework in order to apply that knowledge to a creative process.  Finally, Zoran Popovic talked about a strategy of releasing different versions of the same math game and tracing players activities within an ‘error space’ to discern which game variants facilitate learning (a paper describing the more fundamental technology).  Again, this critically reflects a reverse information flow and the generation of knowledge: collectively, students map out optimal learning pathways.

The common thread in these diverse projects is a fundamentally different notion of learning: it is not simply a transfer of knowledge, but the generation of knowledge.  This is what video games can do that no textbook or training film can do. This, I believe, is the revolutionary potential of video games.

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