Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Look at you, Student; a pathetic creature of flesh and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my calculus course ...

I'm not entirely sure how one goes about integrating a math lesson into a first-person-shooter game, but it seems as though someone has. Naturally, of course, the reaction from some parents has been less than stellar. These luddites are ruffling my feathers. Bad.

Educational videogames are counted among my favourite memories from grade school. In fact, I defy you to find someone who grew up in my generation who does not have a deep and enduring love for Treasure Mountain/Mathstorm, Outnumbered!, Gizmos and Gadgets...heck, maybe even Reader Rabbit! These were games we played of our own volition, practically from the moment we learned how to use the school computers; games which managed to craft fun experiences with educational content. I think that it's perfectly reasonable for educational games to keep up with the times. That means they have to compete in terms of content and entertainment value with the games we buy off the shelves. I don't think they need bleeding edge graphics, but basically they should look and feel like something kids would take seriously as a video game first, and the educational experience should seek not to bludgeon the poor child, but to insinuate itself seamlessly into the normal course of gameplay. It's a bit like hiding spinach in food, I guess.

So on the matter of an educational first-person-shooter: FPS gameplay is popular, recognizable, and it's been in vogue since about 1993. FPS gameplay is relevant, and that's very important. If you make an educational FPS you're doing some novel things. One, you're allowing a skill that kids will likely have developed outside the classroom to be helpful inside the classroom. This means not only will kids understand your game from the get-go, it creates a two-way relationship: you want them to learn math, and you can offer them the chance to improve their FPS skillz at the same time. You are offering BOTH a long-term reward AND a short-term reward. I think it's a good answer to this supposed "problem" of the modern attention span. Instead of sticking to the bankrupt rhetoric of "well, kids should just suck it up and be bored at school because it's good for them!" you're saying that learning doesn't have to suck. If you've got reservations about the violent nature of shooters, check yourself: this educational shooter's main weapon is some kind of goo gun. For that matter, videogames feature avatars pointing guns at avatars. If you want something that actually teaches kids to point something at another kid and pull a trigger, how about you go on a crusade to ban super soakers, nerf guns, paintball and laser tag! I even think that shooters could use an injection of non-conventional arsenals. You don't need graphic headshots and real-time dismemberment - just give people a reward for good performance. Maybe you're playing capture the flag with guns that force your enemies to dance uncontrollably for three or five seconds? Or maybe you've got portal guns Aperture Science Hand-held Portal Devices and you have to get your opponents stuck in infinite loops or toss them off cliffs. If that's too violent for you I suppose you've been petitioning childrens' TV stations to stop showing road runner and coyote cartoons for the last thirty years, haven't you? Hey, why not something like Iain M. Banks' Lazy Guns that summon anvils or what-have-you above the target's head? In a cartoon world, that hardly stuns a guy! I think I've made my point, but essentially I think that the blithe equation of the shooter genre with gut-splattering violence is the same kind of irritating short-sightedness that makes commercial shooters so bland and samey!

I remember reading a book by Seymour Papert in which he discussed why the education system seems to be faltering, while kids spend more and more time captivated by videogames. His response (paraphrased) was more or less "Isn't it obvious? One of these things has grown and adapted to teach a child often complex concepts using multiple forms of stimuli as best as cutting-edge technology allows. One of them has not". In short, education is stuck at the book (printing press/movable type is 15th-century tech, for those keeping score), and this generation seems to demand something a little more their speed. Dare I say that rather than working so hard to ban iPhones in school that we should instead be proud to say "Trouble with calculus? There's an app for that."? Banning games like this educational shooter - which I intend to try and review at my earliest convenience - sets a terrible precedent. When you think about it, it isn't too different from some other topical issues in education: sex education and the intelligent design fiasco. In each of these cases you can see that one side is trying to supersede evidence (or in the case of educational videogames the chance to even gather evidence about their efficacy as learning tools) with ideology. Even though learning about safe sex is PROVEN to be an actual bulwark against unintended pregnancy and STIs, children should be taught abstinence-only education because it's wrong to even condone premarital sex. Even though evolution fits all the observed data, we should teach our children that there is "controversy" because some nutjobs are convinced that "5% of an eye isn't useful" = "YHWH designed the eyeball" (in case you've never heard of the light sensor and its uses, these guys are already wrong). Even though videogames offer us a way to fully harness technology to teach and engage, we can't use them to teach our children because learning isn't supposed to be fun. Or participatory. Or even vaguely remotely violent. OH REALLY?

Looking into the future, I even see a use for games not explicitly designed for educational purposes in learning. Unless you want to argue that education shouldn't keep up with current knowledge and culture, I fail to see how Dragon Age or Morrowind should not be analyzed when we look at the legacy of - say - Tolkien in high fantasy! Do we really understand our culture's concept of villainy if we don't analyse Bowser, SHODAN, and GlaDOS? The world didn't end in 1980, so why should education?



Dr. Ivan Hood said...

I always look forward to your updates, you have some remarkably complex thoughts on something most people would simply scoff at and say "They're dumb."
Well, maybe that's just me.

Etarran said...

Luckily for humanity, the existence of the internet makes it impossible to [i]stop[/i] children from learning whatever they damn well please, child safety protocols or no child safety protocols.

A couple notes: just because something was invented a long time ago doesn't make it useless. If anything, for the generation growing up, an understanding of print will be more important than ever, as it will be a skill to be valued, rather than assumed. This will perhaps not last forever, as print media fall further and further out of favor, but for now it holds true. Kids who can read books will eventually the equivalent of the 40-odd dudes left in the world who can speak whatever language they coded ATMs in. (Okay, so that's not true at all, but it makes a funny image.)

Your analogies aren't terribly apt, to the subject or to one another. The philosophies that lead to abstinence-only education and creationism in the schools are completely different both from one another and from the philosophy that would lead to banning educational video games. In the first place, it comes from a (misguided) belief that children should not be exposed to things which our society has deemed inappropriate for public display, a belief which is insidious because it is so compelling to believe that it is protecting them. In the second, it comes from the idea that observable evidence is not the one and only metric on which to judge the merit of an idea - an argument which I think is worth exploring, because the whole-hearted belief in observable evidence is as societally driven as any other viewpoint. However, it has become tangled in silly individual issues like this one.

The use of educational video games, on the other hand, has no overwhelming piles of evidence supporting it (anecdotes from our grade three class notwithstanding) - if they were to be used, it would be in an experimental capacity only. The argument against them, then, is that the experiment could have negative results - an argument which is facetious and silly at best.

I bring all this up to point out that when you bring in politicized issues for the sake of making an emotional appeal, you lose the strength of your position in a great burst of logical fallacy, in the same way that opponents of sex education who say "sex education is pretty much just like child molestation" do.

All that (mostly irrelevant) criticism aside, everything you had to say on the subject of the post was spot-on.

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