The Education Revolution Will Not Be (Entirely) Computerized

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Imagine games in the classroom. What comes to mind? These days, the most likely answer is some form of digital game, perhaps an online game, a Kinect game, or something on an iPad. There are hundreds of educational games available on these platforms and they are used in classrooms around the world every day. In the 21st century digital games are without a doubt a Big Thing.

But, are they the Right Thing?

Digital games have many strengths. They can deliver engaging experiences to students that are full of sound, motion, and color. They can encapsulate complicated and dynamic simulations and reveal as much or as little of this complexity as necessary. They can be easily distributed at scale. They can allow students to explore personalized experiences at their own pace. They can provide the instrumentation to empower sophisticated analytics across large population of learners. These are just a few of the many things that digital games can do.

Digital games also have many weaknesses. They may not be easily modified or extended beyond their original purpose. They may not be distributable to students who do not have access to the necessary technology. They may not allow full expression of creative choices outside of parameters implemented by the designers. They may not be easy to use due to bugs and technical problems. They may not provide face-to-face, embodied play experiences. They may not enable a teacher to exercise their creativity and authority in the classroom. These are just a few of the things that digital games may not do.

Before digital games, there were paper games. In many ways, paper games are strong where digital games are weak and vice versa. There has been an explosion of digital games in the last two decades or so, and there has also been a corresponding explosion of paper games. This suggests that the current phenomenon is not about digital gaming, but about gaming, regardless of the medium. This also suggests that there is something attractive about paper games that cannot be entirely satisfied by digital games.

artemiscadets Figure 1 -- Typical setups of Artemis (left) and Space Cadets (right)

The contrast between digital and paper gaming can be examined by comparing two recent cooperative games that are both described as ‘starship bridge simulators’. The first is Artemis, a digital game that is played by five players using networked PCs with virtual control panels that concretely simulate various Star Trek-style bridge roles (captain, engineer, sensors, weapons, and helm). The second is Space Cadets, a paper game that is played by 3-6 players around a table, playing similar roles to Artemis but in an abstract fashion by solving a variety of paper-based puzzles. Artemis hides the complexity of its simulation, providing each player with an individualized control panel that represents their role. Space Cadets leverages its complexity by tasking its players with cognitive challenges that need to be navigated simultaneously with strict time limits. A full comparison is beyond the scope of this article but a key aspect is that Artemis enforces collaboration and formalizes compliance with the rules while Space Cadets encourages collaboration and informalizes compliance with the rules. In other words, players of Artemis are constrained by the programming of the game and required to obey the rules while players of Space Cadets are facilitated by the aesthetic of the game and encouraged to obey the rules.

This tension between constraint and facilitation, between programming and aesthetic, and between requirement and encouragement, highlights a prominent limitation of digital games and an opportunity to regain something that I believe was lost when we shifted our focus from paper games in the classroom to digital ones. Starting in the late 60s there was another explosion of games in the classroom, but this one centered on open-ended paper games. An excellent example of this era is “They Shoot Marbles, Don’t They?” (TSMDT), a game created by Fred Goodman at the University of Michigan to enable urban youth to explore the importance of rule of law in civil society. TSMDT cannot be bought in stores. You can download a PDF of the game rules here, which contain instructions on how to build the game. It will require about $30 in materials, some paint, a paintbrush, some nails, and a hammer.

marbleclass Figure 2 -- You can't do this on your XBox!

TSMDT is one of the greatest learning games that I have ever played, and its power comes not from the formality of the rules but precisely from their informality. The game starts from simple principles – players shoot ‘worker marbles’ to hit ‘job marbles’ and earn income. Very quickly two conditions arise. The first is the segregation of players into economic brackets and the second is a realization that the rules are (intentionally) ambiguous, and that they allow for amendment as well as the creation and assignment of enhanced player roles such as bankers, police officers, judges, and other civil and private positions. The rich players are well-positioned to ‘make the rules’, allocate funds, and dictate positions. A clever voting system that uses colored blocks of different heights creates a situation where ignoring the needs and desires of the poor players is likely to result in disruptions of civil order that, if left unchecked, can undermine the stability of the game world. TSMDT is a game that cannot be played digitally. It facilitates role play, social discourse, creative problem solving, and exploration of complex systems within a loosely defined environment. Moreover it emphasizes personal agency and the ability to both subvert and improve the laws of a virtual society without limits. While a certain subset of possibilities of TSMDT might be encoded in software. The result will always be finite and as such will always fail to deliver the core pedagogical principles that TSMDT is designed to embody.

Forty-five years ago, in the May of 1968, student protests in France grew into wildcat strikes that led to a nationwide general strike that nearly shut down the infrastructure of one of the most advanced and stable economies in the world at that time. The protests in France were just one of the many protests worldwide at this time – protests that were catalyzed in part by “a youthful desire to rebel against all that was outmoded, rigid and authoritarian” (quote taken from this Guardian article that discusses the causes of the 1968 protests). Revolution is exactly that – a cyclical motion that moves away from one state only to return in a new (and hopefully better) instantiation. The disenfranchised rebel against the rulers and, should they succeed, they become the rulers. The more things change, the more they stay the same, though hopefully in wiser incarnations. I propose that what is ‘outmoded, rigid, and authoritarian’ in game-based education is our stagnant conception of games for learning and its apogee is the current state-of-the-art of digital games. The education revolution starts today, in the May of 2013. You can join the revolution in three easy steps:

  1. Bring a paper game and a digital game into your classroom and play both with your students.
  2. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of both paper and digital gaming.
  3. Explore the potential to merge the two into something greater than its constituent parts.


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