It’s Not that they are Playing

I spent much of last week presenting to teachers and superintendents in New York and New Jersey. Then I drove back up to Newark, turned in my rental car, and then trained, walked, and bused my way out to Long Island, where my brother owns a house — without WiFi. The intensity of my recent presentation schedule along with two days, totally disconnected, left me with nothing to say today on 2¢ Worth. In fact, being my day to write for the Tech Learning Blog, I cheated, and found an old 2¢ entry to recycle into T&L.

All that said, I was sitting on the plane a few minutes ago (delayed on the tarmac), scanning through the April issue of Leading & Learning with Technology, and ran across an interesting piece, one of those “yes” and “no” arguments entitled “Can Games Be Used to Teach?“. Taking the “yes” argument was Alix Peshette, a technology training specialist from California. She was followed by one of my all time heros and tech visionaries, David Thornburg, taking the “no” side of the argument. This surprised me, but the interesting thing was that both parts of the article were saying pretty much the same thing — that it depends on the game. I beg to differ.

Thornburg described with distaste the site of exhibitor booths where conference attendees crowd around four deep watching a video game show being played by enthusiastic volunteer (well, they’ll get a T-Shirt out of it.) The winner will be the player with the most correctly answered questions. After listing several other drill & practice style scenarios, he suggested that…

…there are “gaming” environments of value — simulations of real-world phenomena. I gladly recommend SimEarth and other programs of this kind for educators.

Thornburg draws an interesting distinction between a game show (fill in the blank game), and the more open-ended simulation style of game. I would carry it a bit further and say that it isn’t the difference between the kinds of games being played, but between the learning expectations. One type helps students to memorize facts. The other helps them to master concepts, develop problem solving skills, and do so in a more authentic fashion.

Certainly, both types of learning are necessary. I would suggest (not for the first time) that in a time of rapid change that relies increasingly on inventive and resourceful problem solving and self-directed learning, the emphasis is tilting toward the conceptual learning and less on memorizing facts. Still, some facts must be known by members of a culture.

If it is important for children to know the multiplication tables or (for heaven sake) the capitals of the states, and a mock game show helps them do that, then I say, “Bring on the prizes.” If students need to understand the interdependence of cultures in an increasingly globalized world society, then strap on your roman helmut and let’s play Civilization.

I know that David’s children are all grown. If he still had children at home and watched them playing today’s deep and engaging games, he would probably have written differently. So, what am I going to do next year when my son goes off to college.

I wonder which game system he’s going to leave behind. 😉

Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.