Challenging the idea that games can’t be fun AND meaningful

In “Reading, Writing & Videogames,” parent and New York Times features editor Pamela Paul seems to be arguing that digital games are just that – games – they should just be fun. They don’t need to be educational, and they don’t really belong in classrooms.

The first part of her argument makes perfect sense – hard not to agree that kids need to have fun and parents don’t need to feel that every bit of their kids’ digital media use should be educational. But the second half of her argument is dismissive of a whole lot of good thinking, practice, and research about the benefits of games in pedagogy – thinking represented by a panel of scholars that spoke at Stanford University earlier this month, Stanford News reports.

More than either/or

Paul’s framework is either/or: either the traditional classroom with no technology or gamifying education, seemingly summing up all education technology as the latter. Let them have their fun with technology while waiting for the subway, she suggests, then “once they’re in the classroom, they can challenge themselves,” suggesting there’s no challenge in digital games – though Prof. Constance Steinkuehler at University of Wisconsin says the games in which she’s observed students do not lack challenges. “Games are hard,” she said at Stanford. Paul writes that children need to derive “meaningful reward” from “rote work,” while the scholar panelists reportedly said that “the traditional classroom … in many ways stifles some of the attributes most crucial for human learning: persistence, risk taking, collaboration, problem solving.”

Stanford education professor Dan Schwartz said that “knowledge is not the outcome we want; we want students to learn how to make choices” (presumably he was referring to the information age, in which knowledge is at people’s fingertips 24/7, and knowing how to filter, determine the value of, and make informed choices about this ever-available knowledge is the skill set students need under current conditions). In a talk last year, John Seely Brown from the University of Southern California said that tacit, not explicit, knowledge is what children (and all of us) need to know how to work with now. “In a world of constant flux, learning has as much to do with creating the new as learning the old – but in creating the new, much of what is created is basically tacit, hasn’t had enough time to be crystallized out as explicit knowledge” locked in textbook cement. We need to support our children in doing the whitewater kayaking kind of learning on the fly rather than the steamboat kind on a set course from Point A to Point B, Seely Brown said.

Whose definition of “meaningful”?

But let’s zoom in on this idea of what’s meaningful and to whom. While the Times’s Paul seems to suggest that “meaningful reward” can’t happen in games, game designers and scholars have actually given a lot of thought to intrinsic rewards. The scholars at the Stanford conference said they don’t see much of it in the traditional classroom (in fact, grades have been referred to as an extrinsic reward system). Games-and-learning scholars are as dismissive of “gamification” as Paul is, in fact, saying it has more to do with extrinsic rewards than intrinsic or meaningful rewards (see this). What makes whatever is learned meaningful, scholars say, is agency (autonomy and choice), relevance, and competency, all of which are a part of playing well-designed games, Jane McGonigal, PhD, argues in her book on the subject, this), and so, logically, it’s time to spend more time figuring out meaningful use of games and technology in the classroom rather than dismissing them merely as tools for tricking kids into learning.

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