Life Imitating Games

| July 15, 2010

Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 7, 2010, p. - ID Number: 15917

Article Review

In “Cracking the Code,” Alexander, Eaton, and Egan synthesize the scholarly literature on electronic gaming in a way that is both inventive and accessible to non-specialists. They identify three primary approaches that characterize researchers’ ways of relating games, or the study of games, to conventional, school-based learning. In addition to categorizing research paradigms, Alexander et. al. offer a normative assessment and a novel suggestion- namely, that the study of games can shed light not just on how learning can be improved with games, but without them.

The three approaches to gaming and learning the study identifies are:

1) the Separatist Approach, which holds that game-play facilitates significant knowledge and skill development separate from that encouraged by formal instruction;

2) the Integrative Approach, favored by those who believe that games and curricula can be mutually reinforcing; and

3)    the Transfer of Learning Approach, espoused by the study’s authors, who assert that games’ greatest promise for education is in the example they set of how to engage students’ imaginations- a model that could recongifured, or reimagined, for the classroom.

The authors do, however, recognize the merit of game-based learning as understood in each of the first two approaches. Yes, games have been shown to foster critical thinking and catalyze cognitive development, they concede, and when intelligently paired (or linked) with curricular content they can elicit a more animated response than the static delivery of information. Even Second Life and World of Warcraft “are likely to have great potential for educational applications.”

Still, games’ greatest insight could be in how, not how much, they engage. The authors identify some of games’ hallmark features, such as narrative, the example of heroism, and the presentation of the “exotic,” among other things. Incorporating such elements into the classroom would not sacrifice the goal of making learning relevant to students’ everyday life, but strengthen it, by exposing them to “extreme limits within which it exists.”

Connection to the EdLab

With academic centers on gaming popping up,  like those at the University of Wisconsin and MIT, and the advent of augmented reality, (toyed with at a few campuses already), it’s hard to deny that games are bound to be a fixture in the education landscape. One glaring weakness in this paper, though, is that it implies that game- and classroom-based learning exist on a binary spectrum, isolated from other media that foster, facilitate, and condition learning. But perhaps it suggests, on a broader level, that game design yields tremendous insight for the design of curricula or other learning instruments. Narrative and the unfamiliar, after all, can play a significant part in the creation and presentation of data visualization.