|Digital Game Based Learning|
|reviewer||Robert Nagle (aka Idiotprogrammer)|
|summary||Visionary book on instructional design and game design.|
Digital Game-Based Learning (DGBL) consists of two parts. In the first part, Prensky argues that the prevalence of video games has actually rewired our brains and made traditional learning methods less effective. In the second part, Prensky makes the case that DGBL can be used successfully by corporations to train people and offers practical advice (based on vast experience) about how to deploy game-based training methods. Throughout the book, Prensky examines aesthetic, cognitive and pedagogical questions surrounding such games and provides dozens of case studies to illustrate his points.
Prensky argues that current learning methods for young learners fail to engage learners used to interactive media. Learners now expect interactivity. Prensky writes:
Games Generation workers rarely even think of reading a manual. They'll just play with the software, hitting every key if necessary, until they figure it out. If they can't, they assume the problem is with the software, not with them--software is supposed to teach you how to use it. This attitude is almost certainly a direct result of growing up with Sega, Sony, Nintendo, and other video games where each level and monster had to be figured out by trial and error, and each trial click could lead to a hidden surprise. Games are almost all designed to teach as you go.
Prensky believes that the instructor-led classroom and the teach-test method are actually historical artifacts no more than 200 or 300 years old. The teach-test instructor-led class and its instructional methods arose partially from the rise of the printing press and the widespread availability of reading material.
Why then does the teach-test method still prevail? One reason may be the generation gap and technology gap between learners and teachers. Even technologically savvy educators have biases towards methods that worked while they were learners themselves. The way we learn is to some extent a byproduct of the cultural and technological milieu we mature in. Twenty years ago educators were extolling the virtues of reading books while youngsters (including me) were "wasting" their time before the boob tube. Nowadays, undoubtedly, there is a tension between educators pushing "media literacy" (media, in this case, often equaling conventional TV broadcasting) and students too busy making additions to their online Sims house or watching webcams of friends to care. No matter how much you may try to keep up, I once told a group of middle-aged Ukrainian teachers, your students will always be more hip to the technology than you.
This is not merely a matter of age but of comfort level. Growing up with a technology (especially at an early ago) makes using it second nature. According to the neurology and psychology research that Prensky cites, the brain reorganizes and rewires itself in response to cultural stimuli, so a child who plays videogames at night is bored at class not because of "short attention span" or bad study habits but because the child's brain has programmed itself to respond better to "twitchspeed" interactivity. Prensky cites John Bruer's statement that achieving this kind of brain reorganization requires students to spend "100 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 5 to 10 weeks to create desired changes because "it takes sharply focused attention to rewire a brain." Then Prensky adds, "Several hours a day, five days a week, sharply focused attention--does that remind you of anything? Oh yes -video games!" (p 43) . Interestingly, Prensky cites research about how children with attention deficit disorder are using video games to retrain their brain and help them to concentrate. For the game-playing child, going to school means having to "power down" and endure teaching methods ill-suited to him. (p44).
After Sesame Street showed that you could educate children by entertaining them (and sustaining their interest), games (and sometimes even instructional technology) have focused on how to sustain this interest. In an age where pop-ups, 15-second promos and CNN updates are everywhere, it is no wonder that "gaining attention share" is the central concern. Children have learned the art of selectively being able to tune out media. How then to keep their attention? Interestingly, this concern parallels that of game developers looking for better ways to sustain gameplay.
A child once described playing educational games as "hard fun." When people are "playing," they forget inhibitions and self-consciousness to concentrate on the game's mission (i.e, "learning objectives"). When I taught English to college students overseas, I was surprised to find that one of my weakest and least confident student interacted adeptly to an immersive role-playing game with a strong English language component. From my viewpoint, she was quickly comprehending spoken dialogue and responding appropriately. From her viewpoint, she had just crossed the bridge and now could start digging for gold. Cognitive breakthroughs often require distracting activity to allow the mind to refocus (visionary Alan Kay wrote, "people have more brainstorms on the jogging path than at their desks."). Educators typically view educational gaming as useful mainly for drill and practice, but as gaming environments become more complex, edugames may be more useful in providing roundabout paths towards concepts hard to reach by traditional methods. To use just one example, computer aids allow students to manipulate data and geometric figures as a way to experiment with mathematical principles. Indeed, one of Prensky's most successful game projects, the Monkey Wrench Conspiracy, taught young learners/players how to do 3D computer design by setting them in a spaceship with a mission to make repairs before the spaceship blows up.
The most fascinating section for me was Prensky's juxtaposition of game design principles alongside instructional design principles. Even if one doesn't accept Prensky's historical analysis (and thoughtful detractors like Kurt Squier have pointed out shortcomings) or his argument that games should be more widely used for training, Prensky's theoretical overview of game design should interest people in both the education and game camps. Both game designers and instructional designers are obsessed with epistemology: how to reveal information to the player/learner in a way that sustains interest; how to use conflict to change the player/learner's behavior or attitudes; how to provide enough feedback for the player/learner to change behavior; how to present a simplified view of the world without distorting it; and how to permit freedom of exploration within the constraints of an object-oriented world or of a lesson plan. These are concerns, by the way, that also interest writers of plays and fiction, except that the "player" is split into two roles: that of character (who is controlled by the playwright/writer controls) and audience (who can emphasize and anticipate, but can't change outcomes).
Prensky's grid that maps learning content to game styles (p156) indicates that sufficient varieties of games exist to tackle any training challenge. Electronic Jeopardy style games can drill employees about company policies (and these templates are commercially available and widely used). Realistic simulation games, although probably more costly to produce, may actually reduce training costs whenever the actual equipment or training environment is expensive to begin with. Better that the potential pilot crash-land a few Flight Simulator planes, or that the combat soldier accidentally kill a few civilians within a simulation environment than for real. Prensky offers good questions for evaluating the educational value of computer games: do people using it think of themselves as players rather than students? Is the experience addictive? Does it encourage reflection? Would the game be considered "fun" by someone outside the target audience? Despite the similarities, there are important differences, Prensky would argue, between games that entertain and those that educate. For one thing, successful games require visual external action to sustain attention. But this is not needed for certain domains of learning. Games may be good for learning the process of putting together a Burger King hamburger (p264), but would a game be practical for learning Java programming? Or Freud's theory of the unconscious? It's probably not impossible to design such a game; both Java and psychoanalysis involve understanding low-level mechanisms of causation, recognizing aberrant patterns and being able to select the correct algorithm from the available repertory of solutions. Role-playing and collaborative simulations would help. But what the learner needs most is FEEDBACK, game or no game. The assumption behind Prensky's advocacy of game-based learning is that content needs "livening up" or that external motivators (like video games) are needed to drive the students toward learning. I am not questioning the value of these "external motivators." But I have to wonder whether Prensky's pedagogical approach implies that certain kinds of learning activities cannot be self-motivating. Sure, a game about Java programming might amuse the CS student, but the more crucial question (I would argue) is whether this student finds the very activity of programming in java to be "hard fun."
To Prensky's credit, he does not insist that game-based learning is the best strategy for every learning situation. Perhaps the most compelling part of the book is a discussion of more than 40 case studies where computer games have been cost-effective at training. They range from an animated courtroom game (Objection) to a customer service game (where in the world is Carmen Sandiego's Luggage?) to a Sexual Harassment gameshow and many fine examples from Prensky's own company (which can be sampled online for free). He offers helpful advice (undoubtedly gained from experience) about how trainers can launch and even manage such a project. Among his suggestions: befriend IT as soon as possible; choose urgent learning needs that are "boring, complex or difficult," and offer game-based learning in conjunction with more traditional methods and give learners the option NOT to learn via the game method. Prensky offers practical suggestions to companies with training budgets ranging from the hundreds of thousands of dollars to nothing. Although the book is two years old, it still gives a good sense of what your money can get you these days.
Critics usually argue that "e-learning" doesn't compare favorably to live teachers. That is missing the point; the real question is whether e-learning (and game-based learning) provides comparable learning at a lower cost. As e-learning and game-based learning becomes more cost-effective, Prensky predicts a fairly radical transformation of the teacher/trainer's role. To some extent, this has already occurred with the advent of collaborative and student-based learning. But trainers may spend more time choosing the best learning tool for students (or creating new ones!) than actually teaching in a classroom. Is this bad? Prensky mentions that "any teacher who can be replaced by a computer, should be." In this world of game-based learning, Prensky argues, teachers can play a vital role in ensuring that students adequately reflect on the problems or conflicts that arose during the game/learning activity. Games are good at interactivity but bad at reflection. They offer ample opportunities for learning by doing, Prensky says, but minimal opportunities for reflection. One student, asked what he learned from playing SimCity, said, "I learned that if I don't feed the people, they will starve and die." That is clearly insufficient. A good instructor can help the student explore issues more deeply: how do politicians decide about allocating resources? Does the feedback offered to politicians give an accurate reflection of society's needs and problems? What strategies worked or did not work within the context of the game? Would these strategies also work in real life? Reflection is not necessary for every learning context, but today's trainers can make sure students have enough reflection to reap the benefits of game-based learning.
Prensky's book is an excellent introduction to this exciting field. He writes superbly and has a good grasp on learning theory and software design. Although clearly an enthusiast, he never implies that DGBL is the only or best teaching method. Many of Prensky's successes involve computer games as a primary component, but computer games don't need to play a central part in a lesson to be useful for learners. For example, a student can attend a traditional foreign language class and practice at home using a computer game. Ultimately computer games may have more value as supplemental material than as primary material.
Prensky's critique of the traditional trainer is sometimes unfair, especially the "generation gap" thing. Technology is not essential for reaching younger learners (and some experts have decried its overuse). Resourcefulness, a well-designed curriculum and motivational ability trumps game-based learning every time (even Prensky would agree with that, I think).
If we accept Prensky's premise that instructional methods are somehow determined by the prevailing state of technology, one starts down the path of saying that instructional methods are subject to obsolescence. New teaching methods may be more cost-effective or more motivating, but they don't necessary repudiate the value of "old-fashioned" methods (indeed, there will come a time when DGBL will be regarded as old-fashioned, so Prensky better watch out what he says). Using teaching methods so dependent on a technology, I would argue, has the unfortunate effect of rendering teachers helpless in the wake of massive technological breakdown. If a trainer/facilitator skilled in DGBL suddenly found his classroom without Internet access, could he still train employees effectively? One of my most edifying experiences as a teacher came at a Albanian university in Vlore lacking not only computers, but also copy machines and yes, sometimes even electricity. Every day I walked to class, mentally having to plan for contingencies (no electricity, inability to obtain photocopies from a nearby shop) for the day's lessons. While I still managed to pull off some funky lessons (with battery-powered cassette players, magic markers, magazine pictures and large posterboards), I couldn't help wondering if my "innovative teaching methods" merely burdened me with more things that could go wrong. The flip side of Prensky's magnificent vision is the nightmare scenario of teachers so overwhelmed with newfangled technological aids that they opt for the tried-and-true (but technologically primitive) methods rather than risk losing a class to downtime.
Although the spectacular successes mentioned in the book were informative, it also might have been helpful to examine cases where DGBL have failed or turned out to be not particularly remarkable. Every so often, a new theory or learning method hits the world, and suddenly educators use this method whether it is appropriate or not. When is DGBL not appropriate?
When making the business case for DGBL, Prensky overlooked two important things. First, the obsolescence of technology and technological standards (and the perception of obsolescence) diminishes the value of custom-built games for corporations. This seems to be an argument for using cheaper mass-market games rather than convincing the CEO to fund an ambitious game project. Also, I'm surprised that the book didn't spend more time on one obvious advantage to DGBL: digital assessments. Computer games make it easier to verify that learners performed required tasks and to keep the performance data in digital form to demonstrate compliance. That would be a big selling point for human resources.
I've written elsewhere that as immersive games become more sophisticated and develop their own society and values, real life will start to resemble a video game and videogame prowess may become an end worth pursuing for its own sake. Now that weapons and radar systems look more like computer games, for example, military recruiters might be happy with legions of game addicts manning their battalions. As it becomes easier to gain knowledge and experience completely from computer games, the notion of having to learn things from real life will start to seem very strange.
Marc Prensky has put generous excerpts from the book online for free. His company website contain a lot of fun free/demo games, including (my favorite) "The Challenge." Expect it to be slashdotted for a while. You can also buy the book here.
Kurt Squire of MIT's Games-to-Teach project , has written a preceptive article, Reframing the Cultural Space of Computer and Video Games and many other things on game-based learning , including an excellent critique of Prensky's book.
Gamasutra has a separate section on writings about educational games. Free registration is required.
Although not explicitly about game-based learning, Steven Poole's book, Trigger Happy offers a sophisticated aesthetic analysis of videogame narratives and engagement.
Robert Nagle (aka Idiotprogrammer) is a linux nut, technical writer and trainer with a background in instructional design and game design. He works for Texas Instruments in Houston. You can purchase Digital Game Based Learning from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.