What Video Games Can Really Teach Us: Active and Critical Learning in Gaming

As a person who has been in the “ivory tower” of academia for quite a bit of time, I can say first hand just how traditional it is in its values. One would think that education would attempt to take advantage of technological advances — yet when I teach my composition courses (that focus on digital literacy, mind you) I often times find myself in a classroom with nothing more than a chalk board; in terms of digital literacy, this can prove to be very limiting to what we can do. Sometimes the graduate teaching assistants and professors at our university get to branch out the curriculum, leading into activities like analyzing YouTube videos, music, and pop-culture.

Dragon Age White TowerBy and large, these activities lead to very engaging and noteworthy class periods, where students oftentimes continue to pursue what they learn in their own time in both a critical and active way, applying what they learned in class to things outside of the academic domain in order to help them gain a better overall understanding of the world around them. As a writer and a writing teacher, that is what I find to be most important for my students — that they can take what they learn and apply it in a real world setting. More often than not, traditional education fails to do this in a modern context. While a student may learn a theory that they can put into practice in a controlled setting, they may not understand how to apply it in different domains, contexts, or situations; they may not understand how it works outside of the doors of the ivory tower. The difference in theory and practice helps to shine light on educational issues and ultimately displays the importance of critical and active learning versus passive learning and memorization.

This is where video games come in. These traditionalist values often found in education innately shun the idea of video games. While they may be good for hand-eye coordination or reaction times they are repeatedly dubbed a “waste of time” because they lack any form of useful content that can be memorized. In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, scholar James Gee calls this concept the “problem of content,” which is an insult commonly used to affront gaming from an educational perspective. In this rather static concept of education, the academic value of something is only upheld if there is something directly tangible to learn or memorize. The problem with this traditional view is that education, in itself, cannot be static if it is to be productive.

Literacy and communication, two massive aspects in the field of education, do not simply rely on language and books. If they did, the liberal arts would be in stuck in an extremely stagnant and self-sustaining field.  Literacy and communication are meant to teach both active and critical learning skills through analysis and production. Both fields utilize a juxtaposition of graphs, symbols, icons, and words; they embody these traits in textbooks, media, conversation… and even video games. Games mix images and text in an interactive manner. In order to understand a game and progress through it, the dynamics of it must be analyzed to the point of understanding. Once these traits or play-styles are analyzed, the player then begins the production of ideas to work through the trials or puzzles within a game. Gee mentions that learning a game is like “reading” and then progressing through the game is like “writing.” The more I thought of this statement, the more I realized how it was true. When a student reads, they pick apart what they learn and then are asked to apply it in their writing. When a gamer plays an introductory level, they pick apart what they learn and then are asked, by the game, to apply it in their gameplay. This is active learning, where a student learns from experience and learns to apply it in different contexts, sometimes even breaking the rules in applying it in unique ways. The benefit of this kind of learning is that it can be critically applied to other situations – it is transferable. On the other hand, passive learning based on little practice and strict memorization is difficult to apply and is therefore difficult to understand in other contexts. Imagine taking a physics class and learning formulas. Now imagine never using those formulas in a lab.  Maybe it’s just because I’m an English person, but I think it would be difficult to grasp what I learn outside of the classroom.

Although video games may not provide necessary content that  will be found on the GRE, SAT, or on your next Biology test, they, much like literature and writing, provide an interactive medium for both critical and active learning. In actuality, games are the only medium that literally force the player (or reader) to analyze and react to a situation. If the player doesn’t react and analyze successfully, they don’t move on in the game. And this type of learning only expands further with games that actually adapt with difficulty levels – something that challenges the player to critically apply their knowledge in unique and different ways. Gaming creates a learning experience from actual experience and practice itself. This style of learning allows knowledge to be applied at a “meta” level in terms of production and progress, because it allows the player to realize that in different variations and contexts, the same tactic or procedure used in a previous level may yield entirely different  results than before. Therefore the player learns to consider context in their actions, much like writers consider their audience. Dishonored, for example, was a game of trial and error for me. I saved a lot and died a lot more, but this allowed me to test my own theory or hypothesis of gameplay. It allowed me to learn from my failures, and even see my failures as opportunities to learn new techniques. Although this play-style made my play-through relatively long, I was eventually able to get the no-kill achievement and learn some badass stealth moves. I also learned quite a bit about patience. A student, or gamer, cannot learn how to test their knowledge or learn from failure if they don’t have the ability to be both active and critical i their environment. Gaming and other interactive mediums have the ability to do just that.

pikmin 3

In his text, Gee also brings up a child who played Pikmin for a period of time. The game not only taught him how to react in different situations, but it also taught him how to collaborate and do research. From playing a game and becoming a part of an online gaming community he learned how to use forums, research material, and eventually created his own FAQ page dedicated to his favorite games. Now try and tell me that gaming was a waste of time for this child. Through his experience with the game and collaboration with the online community, he developed active problem solving skill. Skills that will undeniably give him an advantage in both education and the real world.

Arguably, not everyone approaches gameplay the way the child who plays Pikmin does; gaming can be a fruitless form of entertainment if it is used in such a way. However, education can also be a complete waste of time if a student is not actively engaged by it. So what ensures that people play a game in a more productive manner? What ensures that people learn or study? Ultimately it seems up to the players or students themselves. But, it terms of video games, it does appear like play-style and game development plays a big part, as activity is tied directly to progression. Dishonored could have been a mindless hack and slash game, but the game begs strategic and stealthy play and offers rewards (achievements, trophies, etc.) for people who think a bit more actively. Games have a place in communication, writing, and even education – but will they continue to be pushed away to uphold traditional values and bias media, or can we really use them to our advantage alongside literature, writing, and other subjects to improve both active, rhetorical, and critical thinking?

(Article published on Gameranx.)


2 thoughts on “What Video Games Can Really Teach Us: Active and Critical Learning in Gaming

  1. This was a great read, and easily the best reason I can give you if you were ever to ask me why I added you to my Feedly’s blogroll.

    I think it’s necessary for education to adapt to newer mediums as quickly as it can. Otherwise, you risk preparing young minds for a world that only exists ten years ago, rather than the world that will exist ten years from now.

    More than that, education should never be about memorizing facts or even better work placement. Instead, it’s about taking passions and inclinations and talents and helping them flourish in a constructive, academic way.

    Games are definitely a useful tool for that. Games like Final Fantasy taught me the names of gods and goddesses for cultures my young brain hadn’t even touched yet. Officering in a top 200 raiding guild in WoW taught me a lot about management. Along with your examples, there are a myriad of ways that games can aid in real, honest human flourishing.

    I can quote Kant and talk about monads or hedons or the Veil of Ignorance, but the best damn thing my philosophy degree taught me was how to be a better, smarter, wiser human being –games have been doing that for me all my life.

  2. Thank you. I absolutely agree… it’s funny that I didn’t realize how games were teaching me until now. But that realization has opened the door for my graduate research.

    “More than that, education should never be about memorizing facts or even better work placement. Instead, it’s about taking passions and inclinations and talents and helping them flourish in a constructive, academic way.” <— That's exactly why I got a degree in English. I would like to write and work in journalism and editing for a while, but eventually I would love to teach. English and the liberal arts give us the ability to teach critical thinking towards a student's own passion. It's something that allows a student to mold their education to something that matters to them, making them much more willing to learn and ultimately making their learning much more fruitful.

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