On Engagement, Education, and Games Research
So, I wanna get a bit more serious than usual for a second here. There have been a number of posts about games and education floating around in my head and in various states of completion digitally for a while now. Perhaps it’s time they come to light. Rather than calling this a brain dump I’d like to think of this more as idea jazz. Separately these ideas may seem discordant, but together the music emerges. The ideas (hopefully) make sense and do some kind of good.
Idea 1: Why do I do what I do? Why do I play games when I could be doing something else? How can I justify playing games as research?
Most of these questions I have answered before either in other posts or a podcast so how about I just answer the question about why I play so many games and how can I justify it. I play games because it is research. I need to see how different games in different genres achieve certain goals and the only way to actually do that is to actually play games. I have done research in computers and writing for about two decades and no one has ever questioned whether or not a Computers and Writing scholar needs to use a computer (though there has been a history of arguments about whether or not we need to be able to write code), but folks still have the audacity to wonder whether or not a person working with games needs to be current in their own game playing. Look, I am not trying to justify my game playing (most of it takes place well after I put in 40+ hours a week of traditional work) or my hardware/software expenditure. I am just stating some very real facts here. It’s just not possible to work with games or elements of games (I won’t say the dirty g_fication word) if you don’t know what is currently going on in games. If you haven’t played a game in 10, 5, or hell even 1 year you are so behind the times that you may as well not have ever played one! Ok, so that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit.
Even if you have no aspirations of teaching with games, writing with/for/about games, or developing games, but you still want to talk about engagement and game mechanics, game design and curriculum development, or even play and education you need to be playing digital games. In the age where 91% of children between the ages of 2 and 17 are playing video games how is it possible that we can deny that it is necessary to play games in order to understand what engages them and how we can better reach them. Every good English teacher I know reads the literature of the age group that they teach because they want to be able to understand what engages them and have some common ground. I haven’t taught in the public school system for more than 15 years but I still read YA lit. Admittedly not as much as I once did, but I still read the chart toppers. But I digress…I find that people who don’t play games, don’t see the value (entertainment or otherwise) in games, and have no marked interest in games usually do a really lousy job of building curricula or online/digital spaces that focus on the engagement features that games do well. I’ve lost count of the number of web portal or software packages I’ve been asked to review, demo, or consider for use in our writing program that have clearly not had the benefit of a gamer. They more than usual feel like new skins on the old edutainment games and content driven software packages that we saw far too much of in the 1980s and 1990s.
I think that I am even more put off by this whole idea because of the book that I am currently reading, Infinite Reality by Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson, but you’ll hear more about that on the next episode of the podcast. I’ve got to leave you wanting for more somehow, right?
Idea 2: Could a humanities based educational project ever get funded? Can people ever understand that those of us in the humanities “do” technology and can do it well?
Robert Torres from the Gates Foundation gave a TEDx talk a couple of weeks ago and talked about the need to improve retention in inner city schools and engagement (through games). What is even more surprising is that one of the games that he shows as being an exemplar was a language arts research based game for middle school aged children. Have we finally come to point that we recognize that while the STEM disciplines are important the language arts are just as important because without them it is impossible to share or work through the problems and discoveries of said disciplines.
While this is one project that got funded by the Gates Foundation (and there have been others like the one in Purdue’s Writing Lab), it is very rare that we in the humanities get this kind of fiscal support from our academic institutions. Much of the time we find ourselves doing much of our work uncompensated (and unappreciated) by our home institutions until we can do something that brings positive attention to the university. And yet, we still do it. We do it for the same reason that we get graduate degrees in English…we (at least most of us) do it for the love of education and what it is that we study. To use a cliche, we do what we do…For the love of the game!