To Digital Games and Learning!

Have I mentioned yet that I read a lot? I’ve been reading in every spare moment I have since I first learned how to read. Without a full-time job this summer, and even with three part-time volunteerships and jobs, I have managed to spend most of my summer reading. For fun, mostly, although I have done some scholarly reading, as well. I think.

Where is all this going? First, I guess I should say that genius characters I read about often make me want to be smarter. Well, I’ve fallen in love with a series that is just chock-full of unbeautiful, incredibly intelligent people.^ Not only that, there are tons of things to like and admire about them. These books are part of the Liaden series* by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (I am an avid science fiction and fantasy reader). I love these books for lots of reasons, but they do make me want to be smarter. And a space pilot. And good at math (I was never, ever, good at math).^^

Eventually, reading these books, I got around to thinking about alternative learning techniques, and how writing essays, although (mostly) fun, and educational, just doesn’t provide the same long-term knowledge and understanding gain that practicing things does. And I remembered the value of digital games, learned partly from reading various articles over the years and partly in one of my workshop-style classes last semester.

One article, in particular, stands out: “Cats and Portals: Video games, learning, and play,” by J.P. Gee. In it, the author discusses the relationships between digital/video games, and learning and play practices. He believes that,

good video games are “learning engines”. Good commercial video games are, for the most part, highly engaging problem-solving spaces. Since video games are often long, difficult, and complex, they must get themselves learned and mastered in effective ways. (2).

He also argues that digital games relate to, reflect, and can act as practice for, the real world.

It is a striking feature of popular culture today that people engage in activities in play that are similar to activities that are found in school and work, but much less liked there. (13).

So, with these arguments floating around in the back of my head, and the books and their characters still on my mind, I decided to find out if I still have access to Portal, which was given me as part of the course. And I have started playing Portal again, which I actually find mostly intuitive, and that I have a talent for it that I lack for other digital games. I know, as I play, that I am practicing problem-solving skills, observational skills, and am learning to recognize how objects move in relation to gravity and space. Gee has this to say about it:

It just so happens that a number of these discoveries [made as players move through levels and challenges] are, in fact, discoveries about physics, though physics as “content” in no way defines the game. Rather, it is physics as possibilities for action that define game play in Portal. (8).

Additionally, he quotes a Valve website that advertises the game:

The game is designed to change the way players approach, manipulate, and surmise the possibilities in a given environment … [http://orange.half-] (7).

As I am aware of reacting to the game in this way, I am certain that I am practicing learning to “approach, manipulate, and surmise … possibilities” in any environment. Which makes me feel a little bit smarter than I was yesterday. (Not to mention the satisfaction and confidence that comes with successfully meeting the challenges of the each level).

So. I play the game, I feel smarter, and I spend hours in leisurely, pleasurable,** intellectually-stimulating pursuits. What’s not to love?

^Hurray for books that don’t focus on physical appearance!

*If you want to start reading these, I suggest starting with The Dragon Variation, which is an omnibus containing the first three books in plot-chronological order.

^^Except maybe in the third grade, when my math teacher-father made me do extra practice with my multiplication tables, specifically the threes. Anyway, the latest trilogy in the series is about a gifted young (female) student named Theo Waitley, who ends up at a piloting academy, where she’s dedicated to learning difficult math and other subjects, so she can become a brilliant space pilot.

**One argument from class that I found particularly compelling, which opposes the school of thought that all digital games should be educational in some way, is the importance of gaming for fun. Everybody has to have some way to relax, right? Sometimes, I think the “educational” advantages of digital games are over-hyped. I do learn things when I read for fun, but mostly I don’t want to concentrate on, or acknowledge, that when I’m reading.


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