High Score Education
Games, not school, are teaching kids to think.
By James Paul Gee
VIEW High Score Education Are full-body scans the last word in preventive medicine? Can the DMCA be Fixed? The New Cold War Shifting Into Overdrive
The US spends almost $50 billion each year on education, so why aren’t kids learning? Forty percent of students lack basic reading skills, and their academic performance is dismal compared with that of their foreign counterparts. In response to this crisis, schools are skilling-and-drilling their way “back to basics,” moving toward mechanical instruction methods that rely on line-by-line scripting for teachers and endless multiple-choice testing. Consequently, kids aren’t learning how to think anymore – they’re learning how to memorize. This might be an ideal recipe for the future Babbitts of the world, but it won’t produce the kind of agile, analytical minds that will lead the high tech global age. Fortunately, we’ve got Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Deus X for that.
After school, kids are devouring new information, concepts, and skills every day, and, like it or not, they’re doing it controller in hand, plastered to the TV. The fact is, when kids play videogames they can experience a much more powerful form of learning than when they’re in the classroom. Learning isn’t about memorizing isolated facts. It’s about connecting and manipulating them. Doubt it? Just ask anyone who’s beaten Legend of Zelda or solved Morrowind.
The phenomenon of the videogame as an agent of mental training is largely unstudied; more often, games are denigrated for being violent or they’re just plain ignored. They shouldn’t be. Young gamers today aren’t training to be gun-toting carjackers. They’re learning how to learn. In Pikmin, children manage an army of plantlike aliens and strategize to solve problems. In Metal Gear Solid 2, players move stealthily through virtual environments and carry out intricate missions. Even in the notorious Vice City, players craft a persona, build a history, and shape a virtual world. In strategy games like WarCraft III and Age of Mythology, they learn to micromanage an array of elements while simultaneously balancing short- and long-term goals. That sounds like something for their r���sum���s.
The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine isn’t its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player’s abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration – a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student’s competence. Most schools, however, seek to avoid invoking feelings of both pleasure and frustration, blind to the fact that these emotions can be extremely useful when it comes to teaching kids.
Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve. This carefully choreographed dialectic has been identified by learning theorists as the best way to achieve expertise in any field. This doesn’t happen much in our routine-driven schools, where “good” students are often just good at “doing school.”
How did videogames become such successful models of effective learning? Game coders aren’t trained as cognitive scientists. It’s a simple case of free-market economics: If a title doesn’t teach players how to play it well, it won’t sell well. Game companies don’t rake in $6.9 billion a year by dumbing down the material – aficionados condemn short and easy games like Half Life: Blue Shift and Devil May Cry 2. Designers respond by making harder and more complex games that require mastery of sophisticated worlds and as many as 50 to 100 hours to complete. Schools, meanwhile, respond with more tests, more drills, and more rigidity. They’re in the cognitive-science dark ages.
We don’t often think about videogames as relevant to education reform, but maybe we should. Game designers don’t often think of themselves as learning theorists. Maybe they should. Kids often say it doesn’t feel like learning when they’re gaming – they’re much too focused on playing. If kids were to say that about a science lesson, our country’s education problems would be solved.